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Brenton Tarrant is seen in the dock during his appearance in the Christchurch District Court on Saturday.—Reuters
Brenton Tarrant is seen in the dock during his appearance in the Christchurch District Court on Saturday.—Reuters

CHRISTCHURCH: As New Zealand was still reeling from shock a day after the killing of 49 people at two mosques during Friday prayers, a district court on Saturday indicted the prime suspect Brenton Harrison Tarrant for murder while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Muslim community members and vowed to change the country’s gun laws.

Handcuffed and wearing a prison suit, the 28-year-old suspected white supremacist stood silently in the Christchurch district court where he was remanded without a plea. The Australia-born suspect is due back in court on April 5 as police said he was likely to face further charges.

The mosque attack, which PM Ardern described as terrorism, was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand after which the country raised its security threat level to the highest.

Footage of the attack on Al Noor mosque was broadcast live on Facebook, while no images emerged from the other mosque in Linwood where seven people were killed.

Tarrant, who lived in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, was arrested in a car that police said was carrying improvised explosive devices.

New Zealand prime minister visits Muslim community members, vows to change gun laws

The suspect was a member of the Bruce Rifle Club, according to media reports that quoted club members as saying he often practised shooting lightweight semi-automatic AR-15. The minimum legal age to own a gun in New Zealand is 16, or 18 for military-style semi-automatic weapons.

“The offender was mobile, there were two other firearms in the vehicle that the offender was in, and it absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack,” PM Ardern told reporters in Christchurch.

Two other people were in custody and police said they were seeking to understand whether they were involved in any way. None of those arrested had a criminal history or were on watchlists in New Zealand or Australia.

Sorrow, sympathy

Twelve operating theatres worked through the night on the more than 40 people wounded, according to hospital authorities. Thirty-six people were still being treated on Saturday, 11 of whom remained in intensive care. One victim died at the hospital.

“Many of the people require multiple trips to the theatre to deal with the complex series of injuries they have,” said Christchurch Hospital’s Chief of Surgery Greg Robertson.

One victim posted a Facebook video from his hospital bed, asking for prayers for himself, his son and daughter. “Hi guys how are you. I am very sorry to miss your calls and text messages...I am really tired...please pray for my son, me and my daughter...I am just posting this video to show you that I am fully ok,” said Wasseim Alsati, who was reportedly shot three times.

Meanwhile, dozens of people laid flowers at cordons near both mosques in Christchurch.

Wearing a black scarf over her head, PM Ardern hugged members of the Muslim community at a Christchurch refugee centre, saying she would ensure religious freedom in New Zealand.

“I convey the message of love and support on behalf of New Zealand to all of you,” she said.

The PM said Tarrant was a licensed gun owner who allegedly used five weapons, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns, which had been modified.

“I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change,” Ms Ardern told reporters, saying a ban on semi-automatic weapons would be considered.

New Zealand has in the past tried to tighten firearm laws, but a strong gun lobby and culture of hunting has stymied such efforts.

Most victims of the mosque shootings were migrants or refugees from countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Abdikina Ali-Hassarn and his family moved to New Zealand from Somalia four years ago and were regular worshippers at the Linwood mosque.

“I can’t even go to the mosque now because I am scared of that happening again,” the 16-year-old told New Zealand television. He said his mother, who was at the Linwood mosque with his father and brother, saw two people shot.

“She came here for the peace...now she is shocked,” he said, adding his mother was too afraid to leave her house.

Men and women from the New Zealand Muslim Association in Auckland flew to Christchurch to assist with the funeral rites, washing the bodies, wrapping them in white cloth and taking them to the graveyard.

However, none of the bodies had yet been released due to the investigation, leaving families unable to bury their dead.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2019