Police are investigating a mass shooting Friday in Christchurch, New Zealand, and said there were multiple fatalities after attacks at two separate mosques, although officials could not yet confirm the exact number of deaths and injuries.
“We can confirm there have been a number of fatalities. We cannot at this stage confirm the precise number but it is significant,” the New Zealand Police said in a Twitter statement.
Authorities said four people were in custody following the shootings, three men and one woman, but that they were unsure if there were additional suspects involved.
New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said there was a “very serious and grave situation” involving an active shooter that began just before 3 p.m. local time. At a news conference later that evening, he said authorities had also safely disarmed “a number of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] attached to vehicles.”
He praised local police for “some absolute acts of bravery” to help apprehend the suspects.
Bush called for residents of the city to remain indoors as police conducted an investigation and schools across the city were on lockdown for hours. He also encouraged people across the country to refrain from going to mosques until further notice.
“I want to ask anyone that was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand today not to go, to close your doors until you hear from us again,” Bush said in a video posted to Facebook. He told reporters later that it was too early to “presume that the danger is gone.”
Radio NZ reported that hundreds of people were praying at one of the mosques when the shooting took place. Local hospital officials could not confirm any details about injuries or deaths related to the incident.
Len Peneha, who witnessed one of the shootings, told The Associated Press that she saw a man dressed in black enter the Masjid Al Noor mosque and heard dozens of shots, which sent people running.
“I saw dead people everywhere,” Peneha told AP.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern could not confirm the numbers of fatalities but said it “was clear that this is one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
“Clearly what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence,” she said at a news conference, noting that many of those affected by the shooting may have been migrants to the country. “It has occurred in a place where people should have been expressing their religious freedom, where they should have been safe. They were not today.”
“They are us,” Ardern continued, referring to immigrants. “The person who perpetrated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.”
She hesitated to label the incident a hate crime until more information comes to light. Bush also said it was too early to tell if the incident was a terrorist attack but said police would know in the coming days.
Fridays are the busiest day of the week for Muslims, a day when worshippers attend Friday prayers, also known as Jummah. Similar to Sunday Mass, worshippers gather for the midday prayer around noontime, which is composed of a sermon followed by a congregational prayer.
A gunman appears to have live-streamed the attack. The video, filmed from a first-person view and viewed by a HuffPost editor, begins with a man saying, “Let’s get this party started.” He then drives for nearly six minutes before leaving his car. The shooter enters what appears to be a mosque and fires at a large number of people, sometimes at close range. After about six minutes, he begins driving to another location. “There wasn’t even time to aim, there were so many targets,” he says.
A man appearing to be the gunman posted a lengthy manifesto on Twitter and the online forum 8chan shortly before the attack began. In the document, he repeatedly indulges Islamophobic tropes and frequently references white nationalist talking points. He identified himself as a 28-year-old national of Australia.
Because of its disturbing and graphic content, HuffPost will not publish or link to the video. The footage quickly spread on social media, and New Zealand officials said they were working with technology companies to remove the videos from the internet.
“It’s very disturbing,” Bush said, noting “that shouldn’t be in the public domain and we’re doing everything we can to remove it.”
Several social media platforms said they had already or were planning to take down any video or accounts related to an alleged shooter. “We have taken down the account of the alleged perpetrator and are working to actively remove all versions of the video from Twitter,” a Twitter spokesman told BuzzFeed.
Mia Garlick, a spokesperson at Facebook New Zealand, told the news outlet that the social network had also removed the suspected shooter’s account and video. The platform is “removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we are aware,” she said.
Reddit and YouTube took similar action.
“Shocking, violent and graphic content has no place on our platforms and is removed as soon as we become aware of it,” a YouTube spokesperson told Buzzfeed, adding they will “work cooperatively with authorities.”
Reddit said it was working to remove links related to the video as it became aware of them.
As New Zealand officials continued to investigate the shooting, many others — both in the community and across the globe — began posting their reactions of shock and disappointment.
“I could never believe that something like this would happen in the city of Christchurch, but actually I would never believe that this would happen in New Zealand,” Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said in a video message posted to the Christchurch City Council’s Facebook page. It was the first mass shooting in New Zealand in more than a decade. “It looks as if simply the worst has happened. We need to pull together and get through this situation.”
Scott Brown, the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand & Samoa, also tweeted.
“We’re heartbroken over the events in Christchurch today,” he wrote. “We stand with our Kiwi friends and neighbors and our prayers are with you. Kia kaha.”
This article has been updated with reactions to the shootings from the Christchurch mayor and U.S. ambassador.
Rowaida Abdelaziz, and Whitney Snyder contributed to this report.