CHRISTCHURCH/WELLINGTON, New Zealand—The number of people who died in a confirmed terrorist attack on two South Island mosques in Christchurch has climbed to 50, after investigators found another victim while removing bodies from the crime scenes, the country’s police commissioner said on March 17, 2019.
“It is with sadness that I advise that number of people who died in this event has now risen to 50,” Police Commissioner Mike Bush said. “As of last night we were able to take all of the victims from both of those scenes. In doing so we were able to locate a further victim.”
The bodies of victims in the attack believed to be instigated by a suspected white supremacist on March 15 have not been released to families yet since investigations are still ongoing. New Zealand Police is working as quickly as possible, Bush told reporters at a press conference in Wellington.
Key suspect Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28, has been charged with murder since March 16. Handcuffed and wearing a white prison suit, he stood silently in Christchurch District Court where he was remanded without a plea. He is due back in court on April 5 and police say he was likely to face further charges.
The attack, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called terrorism, was the worst-ever peacetime mass killing in the nation’s history and has raised the national security threat level to the highest.
Burying Begins for Mosque Attack Victims
The grisly discovery of the 50th victim’s body was made at the Al Noor mosque, where more than 40 people died after a gunman entered and randomly shot people with a semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity magazines, before travelling to a second mosque just a half-hour drive away.
Bush said a further 50 people are injured, with 36 being treated in Christchurch Hospital, two in intensive care, and a child in the dedicated children’s hospital.
Police do not believe the three other people arrested on March 15 are involved in the attack. Two men faced charges unrelated or “tangential” to the attack, while the woman has already been released.
‘Hero’ Commended for Distracting Shooter
One man at the second mosque in the suburb of Linwood is being hailed as a hero for preventing further deaths by distracting and confronting the shooter.
Abdul Aziz, 48, told local media he heard shooting and ran outside the mosque, shouting at the gunman and drawing him away from the building, Newshub reported.
Aziz, originally from Afghanistan, said he picked up one of the gunman’s discarded weapons and threatened the man, who drove off.
Police then rammed what they believed to be the gunman’s vehicle and arrested Tarrant.
“Those two police officers acted with absolute courage,” Bush said. “They have prevented further deaths and risked their own lives to do so.”
Church services for victims of the attack have been held across the country, including at Christchurch’s “Cardboard Cathedral,” a temporary structure built after much of the central city was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake.
Thirty-six people were still in Christchurch Hospital, with 11 being treated in intensive care, and one child moved to the dedicated children’s hospital in Auckland.
A makeshift support centre has been set up at Hagley College, a school across the park from the Al Noor mosque. A stream of victims’ friends and relatives entered, with one woman carrying sandwiches and falafel.
One local student, who asked not to be identified, said a friend had been killed.
“He was studying to be a pilot and we saw him for morning classes. Then he went to the mosque as usual and we are not hearing from him,” he said. “I got a call last night from a friend, around midnight, to say he has passed away.”
Most victims are migrants or refugees from countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s High Commissioner said six citizens are dead and three missing.
Tarrant had no prior criminal history and is not on any watch lists either in New Zealand or Australia.
Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern previously confirmed Tarrant as a licensed gun owner. He 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,” she told reporters on March 16, saying a ban on semi-automatic weapons could be considered to help minimise damage caused by any future attacks.
New Zealand had in the past tried to tighten firearm laws. However, these efforts were quashed due to the country’s culture of hunting wildlife and a strong gun lobby group.
There are an estimated 1.5 million firearms in New Zealand, which has a population of 5 million. The country has enjoyed low levels of gun violence.
By Praveen Menon and Tom Westbrook