WELLINGTON, New Zealand — At least one gunman targeted two crowded mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch and killed “multiple” people Friday, police said, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing the shooting as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
The mosques were packed with worshipers gathering for Friday afternoon prayers, and members of the Bangladesh cricket team were arriving when the shooter opened fire.
Local media reported at least nine people were dead and the South Island city was placed in lockdown as police hunted for an “active shooter.”
Police said there were “multiple fatalities” at two mosques in the city of Christchurch, calling the events “very serious and tragic” and warning the shooter was still considered active.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush also called on people not to go to mosques anywhere in the country on Friday. “Close your doors until you hear from us again,” he warned, promising that the full resources of the force were being deployed.
Ardern said she was unable to confirm the number of fatalities, saying events were still unfolding.
“It is clear that this is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” she told reporters. “Clearly, what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.”
She said while many people affected may be migrants or refugees “they have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not.”
Authorities have not said who they have in custody. But a man who claimed responsibility for the shootings left a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto in which he explained who he was and his reasoning for his actions. He said he considered it a terrorist attack.
The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting said he was 28-year-old white Australian who came to New Zealand only to plan and train for the attack. He said he was not a member of any organization, but had donated to and interacted with many nationalist groups, though he acted alone and no group ordered the attack.
He said the mosques in Christchurch and Linwood would be the targets, as would a third mosque in the town of Ashburton if he could make it there.
He said he chose New Zealand because of its location, to show that even the most remote parts of the world were not free of “mass immigration.”
Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch at about 1:45 p.m. and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror.
Peneha, who lives next door to the mosque, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in Peneha’s driveway, and fled.
Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help.
“I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”
Posted by New Zealand Police on Thursday, March 14, 2019
He said he helped about five people recover in his home. He said one was slightly injured.
“I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.”
He said the gunman was white and was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top, giving him a military-type appearance.
Police said there was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque.
Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun. Nichols said he saw two injured people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop and that both people appeared to be alive.
New Zealand historically has had only a handful of mass shootings events.
ESPN Cricinfo reporter Mohammed Isam said members of the Bangladesh cricket team, who are due to play a Test match in Christchurch tomorrow escaped from the mosque.
“They ran back through Hagley Park back to the Oval,” he tweeted.
The city council offered a helpline for parents looking for kids attending a mass climate change rally nearby.
“Please do not try and come and collect your children until police say it is safe for people to come into the central city,” they said.
Mass shootings in New Zealand are exceedingly rare. The deadliest in modern history occurred in the small town of Aramoana in 1990, when gunman David Gray shot and killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbor.