CHRISTCHURCH/WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Reuters) – The main suspect in mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques was charged with one count of murder a day after an attack that killed 49 people and wounded dozens, prompting the prime minister to vow reform of the country’s gun laws.
Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian citizen, appeared in a Christchurch District Court on Saturday and was remanded without a plea until his next scheduled appearance in the South Island city’s High Court on April 5.
Handcuffed and wearing a white prison suit, Tarrant did not speak. His court-appointed lawyer made no application for bail or name suppression.
He was likely to face further charges, police said.
The attack, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labeled as terrorism, was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand and the country raised its security threat level to the highest.
Tarrant has been identified as a suspected white supremacist, based on his social media activity.
Footage of the attack on one of the mosques was broadcast live on Facebook, and a “manifesto” denouncing immigrants as “invaders” was also posted online via links to related social media accounts.
The video footage showed a man driving to the mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people inside. Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay on the floor, the video showed. Reuters was unable to confirm the footage’s authenticity and police urged people not to view or share it.
Police said the alleged shooter was arrested in a car, which was carrying improvised explosive devices, 36 minutes after they were first called. It was still unclear whether any other shooters were involved in the attacks.
Two other people were in custody and police said they were working to understand their involvement.
Armed police were deployed at several locations in all cities, unusual in a country that has had low levels of gun violence.
Ardern said the main suspect was a licensed gun owner who used five weapons during his rampage, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns.
Authorities were working to find out how he had obtained the weapons and a license, and how he was able to enter the country to carry out the attack, she said.
“I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change,” Ardern told reporters, saying a ban on semi-automatic weapons would be considered.
None of those arrested had a criminal history or was on any watchlist in New Zealand or Australia.
(Graphic: New Zealand shootings – tmsnrt.rs/2O3v80l)
There was a heavy police presence at the hospital where families of the more than 40 wounded had gathered. Eleven people remained in intensive care, hospital authorities said.
Funerals were planned on Saturday for some of the victims, several of whom were born overseas.
Dozens of people laid flowers at cordons near both mosques in Christchurch, which is still rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 2011 that killed almost 200 people.
Leaders around the world expressed sorrow and disgust at the attacks, with some deploring the demonisation of Muslims.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who condemned the attack as a “horrible massacre”, was praised by the accused gunman in a manifesto posted online as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.
Asked by a reporter in Washington if he thought white nationalism is a rising threat around the world, Trump said: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. I guess if you look at what happened in New Zealand perhaps that’s a case, I don’t know enough about it yet.”
Ardern, who flew to Christchurch on Saturday, said she had spoken to Trump, who had asked how he could help.
“My message was sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,” she said she told him.
Political and Islamic leaders across Asia and the Middle East voiced concern over the targeting of Muslims.
“I blame these increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia post-9/11,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan posted on social media. “1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror.”
‘SHOOTING EVERYONE IN THE MOSQUE’
One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman 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.
Facebook said, that having been alerted by police, it had deleted the gunman’s accounts “shortly after the livestream commenced”. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all said they had taken steps to remove copies of the videos.
Ardern said she had asked authorities to look into whether there was any activity on social media or elsewhere that could have alerted them ahead of the attack.
Forty-one people were killed at the Al Noor mosque, seven at a mosque in the Linwood neighborhood and one died in hospital, police said. Hospital officials said some of the wounded were in a critical condition.
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.
Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed, most of whom were born overseas.
A website set up for victims had raised more than NZ$1 million ($684,000) in less than a day, and social media was flooded with messages of shock, sympathy and solidarity.
One image shared widely was of a cartoon kiwi, the country’s national bird, weeping. Another showed a pair of figures, one in a headscarf, embracing. “This is your home and you should have been safe here” the caption read.
(For a graphic on major mass shootings: tmsnrt.rs/2QrER0B)
Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook, John Mair and Swati Pandey in Sydney; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Sonya Hepinstall & Simon Cameron-Moore
Exit poll has Thai opposition winning most seats but not enough for government
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai voters flocked to the polls on Sunday for the first election since a 2014 coup, and an exit poll indicated the populist party linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra would win the most seats, but not enough to form a government.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) prepares to vote in the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
The race has pitted military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seeking to retain power and stay on as prime minister against a “democratic front” led by the Pheu Thai Party loyal to Thaksin.
Thailand has been under direct military rule since then-army chief Prayuth overthrew an elected pro-Thaksin government in 2014. Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin was thrown out by the army in 2006 and has lived in self-exile since 2008.
Unofficial results of Thailand’s first general election since 2011, from the Election Commission, were not due for several hours.
However, immediately after polls closed at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT) the Thai PBS channel aired an exit poll by Thai research center Super Poll that indicated Pheu Thai would win 163 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives.
The same exit poll indicated junta chief’s Palang Pracharat would win 96 seats, the establishment Democrat Party 77 seats, the Bhumjaithai Party 59 seats and the new Future Forward Party 40 seats.
If correct, the projection would mean that Pheu Thai would not have enough votes to form a majority government in its hoped-for “democratic front” with other parties.
Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat party also could not form a government on its own, but it would have a better chance to form a coalition needed to elect a prime minister due to junta-written electoral rules that favor it.
Turnout was estimated to be high as 80 percent among the 51.4 million Thais eligible to vote, the Election Commission said about an hour before the polls closed.
Critics have said a new, junta-written electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party from returning to power.
Voters are choosing the 500-seat House of Representatives. The lower house of parliament and an upper house Senate, which is appointed entirely by the ruling junta, will select the next government.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, but the past 15 years have seen crippling street protests both by his opponents and supporters that destabilized governments and hamstrung business.
Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by John Chalmers, Robert Birsel
Thousands attend NZ vigil, rally to fight racism, remember Christchurch victims
CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – Thousands gathered in New Zealand’s cities on Sunday to protest racism and remember the 50 Muslims killed by a gunman in Christchurch and as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a national remembrance service to be held later this week.
People attend a vigil for victims of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su
About 15,000 turned out for an evening vigil in Christchurch in a park near the Al Noor mosque, where a suspected white supremacist killed more than 40 of the victims. Several more people were killed at the nearby Linwood mosque.
Many non-Muslim women wore headscarves at the vigil, some made by members of Christchurch’s Muslim community, to show their support for those of Islamic faith as they had at similar events last week.
Ardern said on Sunday that a national remembrance service would be held on March 29 to honor the victims, most of whom were migrants or refugees.
“The service will be a chance to once again show that New Zealanders are compassionate, inclusive and diverse, and that we will protect those values,” Ardern said in a statement.
The prime minister has been praised for her leadership following the attack. She swiftly moved to denounce the incident as terrorism, toughen gun laws and express national solidarity with the victims and their families.
The vigil started with an Islamic prayer, followed by a reading of the names of the victims, which included students from the nearby Cashmere High School.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can,” Okirano Tilaia, one of the school’s pupils, told the crowd. “Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can.”
Earlier in the day more than 1,000 people marched in a rally against racism in central Auckland, carrying “Migrant lives matters” and “Refugees welcome here,” placards.
Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s 4.8-million population, a 2013 census showed, most of whom were born overseas.
As New Zealand continued to mourn and ask questions about how such an attack could have happened in the peaceful Pacific nation, the victims’ families spoke about their losses.
Shahadat Hossain, whose brother Mojammel Haque was killed in the attack, arrived in New Zealand on Saturday to bring his brother’s body back to Bangladesh.
“I can’t describe how I felt when I saw my brother’s lifeless body,” he told Reuters. “I was devastated.”
Farid Ahmed, who was at the Al Noor mosque when the shooting took place, escaped but his wife, Husna, was killed. On Sunday, he went door-to-door, thanking his neighbors for their support.
“They came running… they were crying, they were in tears,” he said of his neighbors when they found out that Husna had died.
“That was a wonderful support and expression of love, and I am feeling that I should also take the opportunity to say to them that I also love them.”
Reporting by Jill Gralow Natasha Howitt, Charlotte Greenfield in Christchurch, Ruma Paul in Dhaka, James Redmayne and Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes
Almost 400 people winched from stricken cruise liner off Norway
OSLO (Reuters) – Rescue services had airlifted 397 people to safety from a luxury cruise liner with engine trouble off the coast of Norway by Sunday morning and were preparing to tow the vessel to a nearby port.
The Viking Sky, with 1,373 passengers and crew on board, sent out a mayday signal on Saturday as it drifted towards land in the Norwegian Sea.
The ship was carrying 915 passengers, of whom “a large number” were from the United States and Britain, according to the rescue services.
Some 17 injured passengers had been taken to hospital, a local rescue coordinator told a news conference early on Sunday, while others suffered minor cuts and bruises.
One was taken to St. Olav’s Hospital in the town of Trondheim, which is central Norway’s most advanced medical facility. Others were taken to local hospitals in the region.
“Many have also been traumatized by the experience and need care when they arrive on shore,” the Norwegian Red Cross said in a statement.
The airlift had gone on through the night. The ship has been able to restart three of its four engines on Sunday morning but still needed assistance.
“The evacuation continues at the request of the vessel … they need tugboats to get to port,” rescue service spokesman Per Fjeld said, adding that the plan was to bring the Viking Sky to the town of Molde.
Rescue services have begun to attach lines to the ship from tugboats to begin towing it towards the port.
Stormy weather conditions had improved in the early hours of Sunday, with winds blowing at 14 meters per second, down from 24 meters per second previously, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The wind speeds are expected to fall further during Sunday.
Images and film posted by passengers on social media showed furniture sliding around as the vessel drifted in waves of up to eight meters (26 feet), and passengers earlier described the ordeal.
“We were having lunch when it began to shake. Window panes were broken and water came in. It was just chaos. The trip on the helicopter, I would rather forget. It was not fun,” American passenger John Curry told public broadcaster NRK on Saturday.
The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs.
Viking Cruises, which owns the ship, on Saturday said the safety of passengers was its top priority. The company was not immediately available for further comment on Sunday.
Reporting by Terje Solsvik and Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Jane Merriman/Keith Weir
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