WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- A gunman opened fire in two mosques in central Christchurch today, killing multiple people in what the country's prime minister called "an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence."
The police said three men and a woman were in custody, and they were unsure if there were other people involved. The country's police commissioner, Mike Bush, warned residents of central Christchurch to stay indoors, and police asked mosques to close.
"Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation, but the risk environment remains extremely high," Bush said in a release today, (shortly before midnight Central time Thursday).
"This is and will be one of New Zealand's darkest days," New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said at a news conference today.
Details about the shooting and the number of casualties were still emerging late Thursday.
Ardern said many people affected may be migrants or refugees, and "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."
Bush said the Al Noor Mosque near Hagley Park and a mosque on Linwood Avenue, also in Christchurch, were attacked.
The New Zealand news website Stuff reported that police had cleared Cathedral Square, the site of a rally to fight climate change. All Christchurch schools were put on lockdown.
Shortly before the shooting, someone appearing to be the gunman publicly posted links to a manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, an online forum. The 8chan post included a link to what appeared to be the gunman's Facebook page, where he said he would soon broadcast live video of the attack.
The 17-minute video, which appeared to be recorded on a helmet camera, shows his drive to the mosque, followed by a harrowing nearly 2 minutes of him shooting at worshippers in the mosque before fleeing the building, running back to his car and swapping weapons.
He then re-enters the mosque and again begins shooting, continuing to methodically move through the building. Several victims can be seen in the footage, many lying on top of one another motionless in a corner of the room.
After another few minutes, he leaves again, gets in his vehicle and drives away, talking to himself throughout.
"There wasn't even time to aim, there was so many targets," he says at one point.
The video and Twitter posts showed weapons covered in the names of past military generals and men who have recently carried out mass shootings.
In the manifesto, the poster identified himself as a 28-year-old man born in Australia. He listed his white nationalist heroes, described what he said motivated him to attack, and said he purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States around the Second Amendment.
Authorities said they were unable to confirm fatalities, but the scale of the bloodshed appeared to be vast. Radio New Zealand quoted an eyewitness saying, "there was blood everywhere."
Reporters with the New Zealand Herald described seeing bodies near the Al Noor Mosque, where about 300 people were inside for afternoon prayers, according to local media accounts.
One purported witness, Mohammad Isam, a Bangladeshi journalist, posted a video of members of Bangladesh's national cricket team who he said escaped the attack.
The video showed several men wearing team jerseys walking briskly through a park with the message, "Bangladesh team escaped from a mosque near Hagley Park where there were active shooters. They ran back through Hagley Park back to the Oval," referring to the nearby cricket ground.
After the shooting, Ardern canceled her events for the rest of the day.
The shooting happened a day after the country's minister for climate change, James Shaw, 45, told police that he was grabbed and hit on a street in the country's capital, Wellington.
Reports of the shooting happened as young protesters were gathering in Christchurch and cities around the world to demand action on climate change.
Christchurch, with about 388,000 residents, is the biggest city on New Zealand's South Island, hugging the Pacific Ocean coast.
There hasn't been a mass shooting in New Zealand since 1990, when a man killed 13 people, including two 6-year-olds, after a dispute with his neighbor in the seaside town of Aramoana.
That shooting led to tightened gun laws, including restrictions on "military style semi-automatic weapons."
Gun owners must be licensed, a process that includes a review of criminal activity and mental health, attendance at a safety program, an explanation of how the gun would be used, a residence visit to ensure secure storage, and testimonials from relatives and friends.
Murders are rare in New Zealand, and gun deaths even rarer. There were 35 murders countrywide in 2017. Since 2007, gun homicides have been in the single digits each year except 2009, when there were 11.
Information for this article was contributed by Charlotte Graham-McLay, Austin Ramzy and Daniel Victor of The New York Times; by Isaac Stanley-Becker of The Washington Post; and by staff members of The Associated Press.
A Section on 03/15/2019
Print Headline: Gunfire kills multiple people in 2 New Zealand mosques