At least one gunman killed 40 people and wounded more than 20 during Friday prayers at two New Zealand mosques in the country’s worst ever mass shooting, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as terrorism, Reuters reports.
New Zealand was placed on its highest security threat level, Ardern said, adding that four people in police custody, three men and one woman, held extremist views but had not been on any police watchlists.
The visiting Bangladesh cricket team was arriving for prayers at one of the mosques when the shooting started but all members were safe, a team coach told Reuters.
The killings in the city of Christchurch were condemned by political and Islamic leaders across Asia.
“We believe that 40 people have lost their lives in this act of extreme violence,” Ardern said. “It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack.”
Video footage widely circulated on social media, apparently taken by a gunman and posted online live as the attack unfolded, showed him driving to one mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people inside.
Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay huddled on the floor, the video showed. Reuters was unable to confirm the authenticity of the footage.
One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.
“He had a big gun ... he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.
Radio New Zealand quoted a witness inside the mosque saying he heard shots fired and at least four people were lying on the ground and “there was blood everywhere”.
Ardern said 30 people were killed at the Al Noor mosque, the city’s main mosque, and another 10 at a mosque in the suburb of Linwood. It was not immediately clear if the attacks were carried out by the same man.
“This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” Ardern said.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said four people had been taken into custody.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one of the men in custody was Australian.
The online video footage, which appeared to have been captured on a camera strapped to the gunman’s head, showed red petrol canisters in the back of his car, along with weapons.
Police said improvised explosive devices were found with a vehicle they stopped.
All mosques in New Zealand had been asked to shut their doors, police said.
“Indonesia strongly condemns this shooting act, especially at a place of worship while a Friday prayer was ongoing,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a statement.
She was earlier cited by media as saying six Indonesians had been inside one mosque when the attack occurred, with three managing to escape and three unaccounted for.
In Muslim-majority Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the biggest party in its ruling coalition, said: “I am deeply saddened by this uncivilized act, which goes against humanistic values and took the lives of civilians.”
Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.