The bodies of some of the victims in New Zealand’s mosque shootings will be released on Sunday to loved ones for burial, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, as the death toll rose to 50 when police found another body.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday. Tarrant was remanded without a plea and is due back in court on April 5 where police said he was likely to face more charges.
Friday’s attack, which Ardern labelled terrorism, was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand and it has raised its security threat level to the highest.
Footage of the attack on one of the mosques in the city of Christchurch was broadcast live on Facebook, and a “manifesto” denouncing immigrants as “invaders” was also posted online via links to related social media accounts.
It is customary in Islam to bury the dead within 24 hours but no bodies have been released because of the investigation, police said.
Arden said victims would be handed over to families from Sunday evening.
“It is likely, however, to be a small number to begin with,” she told a media briefing, adding that all should be returned by Wednesday.
Huge piles of flowers were laid at sites near the mosques and passersby of all faiths stopped to pay respects. Ardern said police would be posted at all mosques while they are open.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the body of the 50th victim was found at the Al Noor mosque, where more than 40 people died after a gunman entered and shot at people with a semi-automatic rifle with high-capacity magazines, before travelling to a second mosque.
Police rammed the suspect’s vehicle and arrested him as he drove away from the second mosque in the suburb of Linwood. Bush said the man was apprehended 36 minutes after police were alerted.
One person at the second mosque was being hailed for distracting and confronting the shooter, preventing further deaths.
Abdul Aziz, 48, told media he heard shooting and ran outside the mosque, shouting at the gunman and drawing him away from the building, the Newshub website reported.
Aziz, originally from Afghanistan, said he picked up one of the gunman’s discarded weapons and threatened the man, who drove off.
Church services for victims of the attack were held around 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-four people were in Christchurch Hospital, with 12 in intensive care, while one child was moved to a dedicated children’s hospital in Auckland.
Greg Robertson, head of surgery at Christchurch Hospital said staff were used to seeing gunshot wounds and severe injuries, but the scale and nature of the attacks was different.
“The magnitude of this is the thing that is the most significant issue for people. It’s just comprehending what is the incomprehensible.”
Friends and relatives of victims streamed into a support centre set up at a school across the park from the Al Noor mosque. One woman carried sandwiches and falafel.
A 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,” he said. “I got a call last night from a friend, around midnight, to say he has passed away.”
The majority of victims were migrants or refugees from countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Somalia, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Pakistan’s high commissioner said six citizens had been killed and three were missing.
Bush said police did not believe that three other people arrested on Friday were involved in the attack. Two men faced charges unrelated or “tangential” to the attack, while a woman had been released, he said.
Tarrant did not have a criminal history and was not on any watchlists in New Zealand or Australia.
Ardern said a “manifesto” was emailed to more than 30 recipients including her office, nine minutes before the attack but it gave no location or specific details. She said her office sent it to parliamentary security two minutes after getting it.
In the manifesto, which was also posted online, Tarrant described himself as “Just a ordinary White man, 28 years old” who used profits from cryptocurrency trading to finance extensive travels through Europe from 2016-2018.
The shootings have raised new questions about violence being disseminated online.
Ardern told the briefing that she had been contacted by Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg who had acknowledged what had happened.
“This is an issue that I will look to be discussing directly with Facebook,” Ardern said.
Facebook said on Twitter it had removed 1.5 million videos of the attack in the first 24 hours and it was also removing all edited versions, even those without graphic content.
The violence has also shone a new light on gun control.
Ardern 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,” Ardern told reporters on Saturday, 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.
There are an estimated 1.5 million firearms in New Zealand, which has a population of only 5 million, but it has had low levels of gun violence.