The bodies of some of the victims in New Zealand’s mosque shootings will be released on Sunday to loved ones for burial, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, as the death toll rose to 50 when police found another body.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday. Tarrant was remanded without a plea and is due back in court on April 5 where police said he was likely to face more charges.
Friday’s attack, which Ardern labeled terrorism, was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand and it has raised its security threat level to the highest.
Footage of the attack on one of the mosques in the city of Christchurch was broadcast live on Facebook, and a “manifesto” denouncing immigrants as “invaders” was also posted online via links to related social media accounts.
It is customary in Islam to bury the dead within 24 hours but no bodies have been released because of the investigation, police said.
Arden said victims would be handed over to families from Sunday evening.
“It is likely, however, to be a small number to begin with,” she told a media briefing, adding that all should be returned by Wednesday.
Huge piles of flowers were laid at sites near the mosques and passersby of all faiths stopped to pay respects. Ardern said police would be posted at all mosques while they are open.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the body of the 50th victim was found at the Al Noor mosque, where more than 40 people died after a gunman entered and shot at people with a semi-automatic rifle with high-capacity magazines, before traveling to a second mosque.
Police rammed the suspect’s vehicle and arrested him as he drove away from the second mosque in the suburb of Linwood. Bush said the man was apprehended 36 minutes after police were alerted.
One person at the second mosque was being hailed for distracting and confronting the shooter, preventing further deaths.
Abdul Aziz, 48, told media he heard shooting and ran outside the mosque, shouting at the gunman and drawing him away from the building, the Newshub website reported.
Aziz, originally from Afghanistan, said he picked up one of the gunman’s discarded weapons and threatened the man, who drove off.
Church services for victims of the attack were held around the country, including at Christchurch’s “Cardboard Cathedral”, a temporary structure built after much of the central city was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake.
Thirty-four people were in Christchurch Hospital, with 12 in intensive care, while one child was moved to a dedicated children’s hospital in Auckland.
Greg Robertson, head of surgery at Christchurch Hospital said staff were used to seeing gunshot wounds and severe injuries, but the scale and nature of the attacks was different.
“The magnitude of this is the thing that is the most significant issue for people. It’s just comprehending what is the incomprehensible.”