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Main suspect in New Zealand terror attack appears in court as victims' families prepare for funerals

Forty-nine people were killed in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch yesterday.

Updated Sat 12:05 PM

A RIGHT-WING extremist who filmed himself on a shooting rampage that left 49 mosque-goers dead made a white power gesture as he appeared in a New Zealand court today charged with murder.

Australian-born Brenton Tarrant (28) stood in the dock wearing handcuffs and a white prison smock, as the judge read a single murder charge against him. A raft of further charges are expected.

The former fitness instructor and self-professed fascist occasionally turned to look at media present in court during the brief hearing that the public were excluded from for security reasons.

Flanked by armed police he made an upside-down “okay” signal, a symbol used by white power groups across the globe. He did not request bail and was taken into custody until his next court appearance which is scheduled for 5 April.

The judge has ordered that Tarrant’s face be blurred in footage of the appearance.

About 40 people are still being treated in hospital for injuries. The wounded include a two-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl, who is in a critical condition.

Doctors at Christchurch Hospital said they worked through the night in 12 operating theatres to treat the survivors.

The attack on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques has been labelled terrorism by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and is thought to be the deadliest attack directed against Muslims in the West in modern times.

Outside the court, the son of 71-year-old Afghan Daoud Nabi, the first victim to be named, demanded justice for his late father, who believed New Zealand to be a “slice of paradise”.

“It’s outrageous” he said. “It’s beyond imagination.”

Graves 

Excavators have been called in to remove the vast amount of earth needed to bury the dead, although police have not yet released the bodies to families.

The attack has prompted an outpouring of grief and deep shock in a usually peaceful country, which prides itself on welcoming refugees fleeing violence or persecution.

People have laid flowers at a makeshift memorial just beyond the police cordon around the Al Noor mosque, where most of the victims died.

Many offerings were accompanied by handwritten letters laden with sadness and disbelief, from residents of what one local driver called the “city of sorrow”.

“I am so sorry that you were not safe here. Our hearts are breaking for your loss,” one of the notes read.

flowers A woman places flowers to mourn the victims of the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Source: Guo Lei/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

When the police tape was lifted today, bystanders spontaneously joined police in moving the stack of bouquets closer to the mosque.

An imam who was leading prayers at the Linwood mosque at the time of the attack said the Muslim community would not be shaken by the massacre.

“It was a very bad day, not just all of us, all of New Zealand,” said Ibrahim AbdulHalim. But, he added: “We still love this country.”

Across New Zealand, people have responded with interfaith solidarity — crowdfunding millions of dollars, donating halal food and even offering to accompany local Muslims now scared to walk the streets.

Muslims make up about 1% of New Zealand’s 4.8 million population.

‘I am with you’

Ardern said the victims came from across the Muslim world, with Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia among the countries rendering consular assistance.

One Saudi citizen and two Jordanians were among the dead, while five Pakistani citizens were missing.

Ardern, wearing a black headscarf, met with survivors and victims’ families Saturday at a college which has become an information centre for those affected by the tragedy.

Sahra Ahmed, a New Zealander of Somali origin, said she was touched by the PM’s gesture.

“It means a lot. It is a signal to say — I am with you,” she told AFP.

Gun laws

The last comparable mass shooting in New Zealand was almost three decades ago, and the annual murder rate is usually around 50 people for the entire country.

Ardern said the shooter was “in possession of a gun licence” obtained in November 2017, and he started legally purchasing the weapons the following month.

Two semi-automatic weapons, reportedly AR-15s, two shotguns and a lever-action gun were used in the attacks. Ardern said some of the guns had been modified to make them deadlier.

“I can tell you one thing right now — our gun laws will change,” she said.

brenton-tarrant Screengrab from the video shared by Brenton Tarrant. Source: 9News Sydney

The suspect documented his radicalisation and two years of preparations in a lengthy, meandering and conspiracy filled far-right “manifesto”.

He live-streamed footage of himself going room-to-room, victim to victim, shooting the wounded from close range as they struggled to crawl away in the main Christchurch mosque.

Thirty-six minutes after the police received the first call, Tarrant was in custody.

Commissioner Mike Bush hailed the “absolute bravery” of both police and members of the public “who put themselves in harm’s way” to apprehend the suspect.

Their intervention may very likely have saved further lives.

Some of the officers involved in the operation were rural police officers who Ardern said “put New Zealand first”.

Two other people remain in custody, although their link to the attack is not clear. One man, 18-year-old Daniel Burrough, has been charged with incitement.

‘Horrible massacre’ 

Revulsion at the attack, and tributes to the victims, poured in from around the world, including from Pope Francis, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

US President Donald Trump condemned the “horrible massacre” in which “innocent people have so senselessly died”, but denied that the problem of right-wing extremism was widespread.

Australian police said they had visited Tarrant’s childhood home in the town of Grafton, north of Sydney, and spoken to family members as part of their investigation.

The attack has prompted searching questions about whether right-wing extremism has been treated with enough seriousness by Western governments.

Ali Soufan, a former high-ranking FBI counterterrorism agent, warned the West was “in the midst of a surge of right-wing terrorism that has been metastasising in plain sight while generating only a muted response from domestic counter-terrorism authorities”.

Ardern admitted “the individual charged with murder had not come to the attention of the intelligence community, nor the police, for extremism”.

“I have asked our agencies this morning to work swiftly on assessing whether there was any activity on social media or otherwise, that should have triggered a response.”

Ardern said these issues would be addressed at a cabinet meeting on Monday.

© AFP 2019, with reporting by Órla Ryan 

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