Attacks on two Christchurch mosques left at least 49 dead on Friday, with one gunman identified as an Australian extremist apparently live streaming the assault that triggered the lockdown of the New Zealand city.
In what appeared to be the worst attack against Muslims in a western country, witnesses spoke of victims being shot at close range, with women and children believed to be among those killed.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, saying that it marked “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.
“From what we know, it does appear to have been well planned,” she said, adding that in addition to the dead another 20 people were seriously injured.
The gunman at one mosque was an Australian-born citizen, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Sydney, describing him as “an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist”.
It was not immediately clear how many attackers were involved, but Ardern said that three men had been taken into custody.
Two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were also found and neutralised by the military, police said.
A Palestinian man who was in one of the mosques said he saw someone being shot in the head.
“I heard three quick shots, then after about 10 seconds it started again. It must have been an automatic no one could pull a trigger that quick,” the man, who did not wish to be named, told AFP.
“Then people started running out. Some were covered in blood,” he said, adding that he joined the fleeing crowd and managed to escape.
Video and documents circulating online but not officially confirmed, suggested the shooter had streamed his attack on Facebook Live. AFP has examined the footage, which has subsequently been taken down. Journalists experienced in verification techniques said it appeared to be genuine.
New Zealand police described it as “extremely distressing” and urged web users not to share it. A manifesto had also been posted online on accounts linked to the same Facebook page, suggesting the attack was racially motivated.
A number of pictures were posted to a social media account of a semi-automatic weapon covered in the names of historical figures, many of whom were involved in the killing of Muslims.
Police, who initially imposed a city-wide lockdown, sent armed officers to a number of scenes.
An ashen-faced Ardern told reporters the attacks had been “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence”.
“It is clear that this is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” she said.