The main suspect in the Christchurch terror attack appeared in court Saturday charged with murder as New Zealand’s leader vowed to change the country’s gun laws.
At least 49 people were killed and more than 48 injured in shootings at two mosques in the city in the early afternoon of Friday. New Zealand’s terror alert level has since been lifted from low to high for the first time in history.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, appeared in Christchurch District Court Saturday in a white prison gown and handcuffs. He did not enter a plea and was remanded in custody to appear next on Apr. 5.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said “the man is currently facing one count of murder but obviously there will be further charges laid.”
Two other people are being investigated over the attacks. The three held were not on any New Zealand or Australian watchlists and were not known to police.
Thirty-nine people, ranging from children to the elderly, were still being treated in Christchurch hospital with 11 in the intensive care unit in critical condition, chief of surgery Greg Robertson said Saturday. Many people will require multiple surgeries.
Ardern on Saturday visited a refugee and migrant center in Christchurch as thousands of people across the country laid flowers at mosques and attended vigils.
Many families still await news of their missing loved ones.
The prime minister said authorities were working to remove the bodies from the mosques by the end of the Saturday.
Specialists were working alongside local staff to begin returning the victims to their “loved ones in a way that is consistent with Muslim faith while taking into account these unprecedented circumstances and the obligations to the coroner,” she added.
The identities of the victims have not been released but Ardern said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is acting as a liaison point for foreign governments, and she understood “those involved include Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia.”
At a press conference, Ardern acknowledged that police responded immediately to the attack on Friday and the “individual charged was in custody 36 minutes from receiving the first call.”
“The offender was mobile. There were two other firearms in the vehicle the offender was in and it absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack,” Ardern added.
She said the gun license he held enabled him to acquire the firearms legally.
"I can tell you one thing right now: our gun laws will change," Ardern said.
He used five guns, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns. “A lever-action firearm was also found,” she said, later adding that the guns appeared to have been modified.
The Australian suspect, who livestreamed the attack on social media, “has travelled around the world with sporadic periods of time spent in New Zealand. They were not a resident of Christchurch. In fact they were currently based in Dunedin (a coastal city south of Christchurch) at the time of this event,” the prime minister said.
The Otago Daily Times reported that police were searching a Dunedin property.
Australian media reported further information about the suspect.
Tarrant grew up in the New South Wales, Australia, town of Grafton and from 2009 he had worked at Big River Squash and Fitness Centre where he completed personal fitness training qualifications until he left to travel the world in 2011, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Last year Tarrant posted on Facebook about a trip he had taken to Pakistan, describing it as an “incredible place filled with the most earnest, kind hearted and hospitable people in the world.”
The SMH added that in an online manifesto Tarrant posted on Twitter before the massacres, he said he did not identify as Australian, but as European in culture, political beliefs, philosophical beliefs, identity and blood and that he wrote of obsessions with racial purity and against land “invaders.”
He said he began planning the attack two years in advance and chose Christchurch three months prior to the massacres, the SMH reported.
Queen Elizabeth, Theresa May, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders expressed their shock and condemnation.