As shots rang out, police put the city in lockdown and evacuated nearby climate change protests, with children separated from their relatives looked after by council staff until it was safe.
Forty-nine people have been shot dead and 48 injured in attacks targeting Muslims at two mosques during Friday prayers in Christchurch, in the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, described the atrocity as a terrorist attack and said Friday had been “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”. Police commissioner Mike Bush said explosive devices in a car had been defused and urged all mosques across the country to close their doors for the time being.
A man in his late 20s was arrested and charged with murder. He will appear in court on Saturday morning. Two other armed suspects were being held in custody. Police said they were trying to determine how they might be involved.
A suspect identifying himself as Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old born in Australia, broadcast livestream footage on Facebook showing him driving to a mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people inside.
New Zealand’s entire police arsenal and personnel were deployed throughout the country and en masse in Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city, which is known to have an active white-supremacist subculture.
Hotels in the inner city stationed security guards at their entrances, and armed police protected landmarks of significance, including the courthouse and Christchurch hospital, which is believed to have been a further target. A Christchurch spokesperson told local media police were concerned the suspects had plans to target the victims of the mosque attack as they were transported to hospital.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, called the massacre a “rightwing extremist attack” and said one suspect was Australian-born, without giving further details.
Ardern condemned the ideology of the people behind the shootings, saying: “You may have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
New Zealand’s threat level has been raised from low to high. None of the suspects were on terrorism watchlists, Ardern said.
As dusk fell, people who escaped the two shootings returned to the scene, where they waited at the police cordon in an attempt to reach an unknown number of people still being held in a back room of Al Noor mosque, where 30 people were killed in the first attack. Ten people were later killed at the Linwood Islamic Centre, four miles (6km) away.
Relatives of those inside estimated about 100 people remained locked inside the mosque.
A trickle of Christchurch residents stood with the victims keeping vigil, rubbing their shoulders, offering food and logistical support. “We’re so sorry,” they repeated, and: “This is not us, this is not New Zealand.” Some in typical New Zealand fashion were using black humour, evidently as a coping mechanism in the midst of an overwhelming tragedy.