CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND- Police in New Zealand say there are multiple fatalities at two mosques in the city of Christchurch.
They say one person has been taken into custody.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says it’s “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
Police have not yet described the scale of the shootings but urged people in central Christchurch to stay indoors.
“Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation, but the risk environment remains extremely high,” Police Commissioner Mike Bush said in a release on Friday. Schools and public buildings were on lockdown.
Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch at about 1:45 p.m. and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror.
Peneha, who lives next door to the mosque, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in Peneha’s driveway, and fled.
Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help.
“I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”
He said he helped about five people recover in his home. He said one was slightly injured.
“I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.”
He said the gunman was white and was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top, giving him a military-type appearance.
The New Zealand Herald reported there was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque.
Mark Nichols told the Herald he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun. Nichols said he saw two injured people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop and that both people appeared to be alive.
Christchurch, with about 388,000 residents, is the biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island, hugging the Pacific Ocean coast.
There hasn’t been a mass shooting in New Zealand since 1990, when a man killed 13 people, including two 6-year-olds, after a dispute with his neighbor in the seaside town of Aramoana.
That shooting led to tightened gun laws, including restrictions on “military style semi-automatic weapons.”
Gun owners must be licensed, a process that includes a review of criminal activity and mental health, attendance at a safety program, an explanation of how the gun would be used, a residence visit to ensure secure storage, and testimonials from relatives and friends.
Murders are rare in New Zealand, and gun deaths even rarer. There were 35 murders countrywide in 2017. Since 2007, gun homicides have been in the single digits each year except 2009, when there were 11.
But there are plenty of guns. There were 1.2 million registered firearms in a country of 4.6 million people in 2017, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss nonprofit.
Much like in the United States, gun laws remain a source of heated political debate.
With files from Star wire services