Death toll rises to 50 in New Zealand mosque shootings

Posted at 9:27 AM, Mar 17, 2019

The staggering death toll from the mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques has climbed to 50, New Zealand police confirmed Sunday, as the country continued to grapple with the emotional fallout from the atrocity.

The body of the 50th victim was discovered at the Al Noor mosque, where most victims were killed, when officials were removing the victims' bodies on Saturday, New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said, told reporters on Sunday.

The victims' names were not made public. While a preliminary list of the victims has been shared with families, Bush said their bodies have not yet been released.

The number of wounded also increased to 50, he said. Of those, 34 remain hospitalized in the Christchurch Hospital and 12 are in critical condition, Greg Robertson, the hospital's chief of surgery, said.

He also noted that a 4-year-old girl who was transferred to the Starship Hospital in Auckland was still in critical condition.

Two days after the shootings, Brenton Harris Tarrant, 28, appears to be the only person in custody that has been linked to the attack.

Three other people who were initially detained were not involved in the attacks, Bush said, but authorities are not ruling out the possibility of other suspects.

"I will not be saying anything conclusive until we are absolutely convinced as to how many people were involved, but we hope to be able to give that advice over the next few days," the police commissioner said.

Suspect's manifesto was emailed before attack

The suspect sent an 87-page manifesto to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern minutes before the attack began.

Ardern's chief press secretary, Andrew Campbell, told CNN that the email was sent to a "generic" email account maintained by staff, and was not seen by the Prime Minister.

The document, also posted on social media before the shooting, was filled with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim screeds. Authorities have declined to discuss potential motives for the attack.

Tarrant, who is facing one murder charge, made a hand gesture associated with white supremacists when he appeared in court Saturday.

He was remanded in custody and will reappear in court April 5.

Some victims had found refuge in New Zealand

A Syrian refugee, a Pakistani academic and their sons were among the 50 people killed, family members and nonprofit organizations confirmed.

Syrian refugee Khaled Mustafa and his family moved to New Zealand in 2018 because they saw it as a safe haven, Syrian Solidarity New Zealand said on its Facebook page.

He was at the mosque with his two sons for Friday prayers when the shooter opened fire. His older son, Hamza Mustafa, 14, was killed and his younger son was wounded.

Victims hailed from around the world. Naeem Rashid, 50, and his son, Talha Rashid, 21, were among six Pakistanis who were killed in the mosques, according to Mohammad Faisal, spokesman for Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"He used to teach at a university," Dr. Khurshid Alam said of his brother, the elder Rashid. "My nephew (Talha) was a student."

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, foreign minister of Pakistan, confirmed the deaths and offered his sympathies to the families as well as a "promise to facilitate them to the best of our abilities."

Makeshift memorials have sprung up in the area around the mosques, with flowers and notes bearing messages of hope and love.

"They may take our innocence but we will show the world the meaning of love and compassion," said one note taped to flowers left on a road divider.

Survivors tried to warn others

Before two lightly armed community police officers ended the attack by running the gunman's car to the side of the road, some attempted to elude the suspect, according to survivors.

Survivor Ahmed Khan, after dodging a bullet fired by the shooter, ran to a mosque to warn others.

Inside he found a friend bleeding -- he had just been shot in his right arm. "I said to him, 'Calm down, the police is here now,'" Khan recalled. "And then the gunman came through the window and shot him -- when I was holding him -- in the head. And he was dead."

In video of the attack posted online by the shooter, he is greeted as he arrives at the first location, the Al Noor mosque, by a man who says "hello brother." Less than a second later, the attacker raises his semi-automatic shotgun and fires his first shots.

Suspect traveled to Turkey and Pakistan

Tarrant is an Australian citizen who had been living in the southern city of Dunedin, about 225 miles from Christchurch, Ardern said. He had traveled around the world and was in New Zealand sporadically, she added.

Officials said he had no criminal history in New Zealand or Australia and had not drawn the attention of the intelligence community for extremist views.

Tarrant visited Pakistan last October, the owner of a hotel in Nagar said.

"He was a regular tourist," the hotel owner told CNN. "All I remember was that he was a fan of local food. He would leave the hotel in the morning and come back in the evenings."

A senior Turkish official told CNN that Tarrant traveled to Turkey a number of times and spent "an extended period of time" there. Turkey is "currently investigating the suspect's movements and contacts within the country," the official told CNN. The suspect may also have traveled to other countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, the official added.

In a chapter of Tarrant's hate-filled manifesto, he called for the assassination of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declaring, "he must bleed his last." Turkish state broadcaster TRT, citing Turkish authorities, said officials were investigating whether Tarrant was in the country "to carry out a terror attack and/or an assassination."

Erdogan condemned Friday's attack in a post on Twitter, calling it "the latest example of rising racism and Islamophobia."

Lawmakers will meet for policy changes

"I can tell you one thing right now -- our gun laws will change," Ardern told reporters on Saturday.

On Sunday, she reaffirmed and furthered that promise.

"Cabinet will meet tomorrow," Ardern said. "We will have preliminary policy discussions around issues like, for instance, gun policy."

The Prime Minister confirmed that her office received an email with Tarrant's hateful, racist manifesto nine minutes before he shot worshipers at the Al Noor mosque. However, the email did not include a time, location or specific details of the attack, Ardern said, and it was given to security within two minutes of receipt.

"I need to make sure that whatever action that we take, it would have been the kind of thing that would have made a difference in this case," Ardern said.