Police 'strongly believe' suspected Christchurch gunman planned to attack 3rd mosque

As the first funerals were held for some of the 50 victims in the Christchurch mosque attacks, New Zealand police announced that they believed the accused shooter was on his way to attack a third target when his vehicle was rammed by police officers.

Families begin burying their dead, police say they are working 'relentlessly' to identify victims

A woman weeps as she leaves Memorial Park Cemetery after attending the funerals of two victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack on Wednesday in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

As the first funerals were held for some of the 50 victims in the Christchurch mosque attacks, New Zealand police announced that they believed the accused shooter was on his way to attack a third target when his vehicle was rammed by police officers and he was arrested.

"We strongly believe we stopped him on the way to a further attack, so lives were saved," New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Wednesday.

Bush would not say what the third target was, but in a 74-page manifesto posted online and sent to government and some media outlets just minutes before the attack, the alleged shooter pointed to a mosque in Ashburton, a community 90 kilometres southwest of Christchurch.

Police arrested and charged 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant with murder, but additional charges are expected in the coming days.

Tarrant, who is a citizen of  Australia, had been living in Dunedin, New Zealand, and had frequented the Bruce Rifle Club.

Pete Breidahl, a 40-year-old hunter and former member of the New Zealand military, says he visited the club on a number of occasions and told the police he was alarmed by some of the conversations taking place there.

"These guys aren't hunters," he told CBC News.

"These are guys that have combat-based fantasies."

He said he was particularly disturbed by one member who spoke about the mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996. The shooter, Martin Bryant, was convicted of 35 counts of murder.

"They were talking about what Martin Bryant did, and how he could have done it better or differently."

Breidahl says he complained to the police, but was told they were "silly old duffers" and not to worry. 

Police say Tarrant had five guns when he attacked the two mosques in Christchurch, including two semi-automatic weapons.

Such guns can be purchased legally and — while owners are not supposed to have a magazine with more than seven rounds of ammunition — there is nothing to prevent them from loading it with 30 rounds.

Gun laws to change

The New Zealand government is poised to introduce stricter regulations on Monday, but John Hart, a farmer and Green Party candidate, decided not to wait and turned in his semi-automatic rifle at a police station.

He'd owned the weapon for about a decade and had been using it to help control the wild goats and pigs that sometimes frequent his property.

"I was effectively wanting to trade off the convenience, against the possibility of other people losing their lives and for me that trade off didn't make sense anymore," he says.

"It became a really easy decision."

While the government has promised swift action on guns, an inquiry is underway to examine whether border officials, police and New Zealand's intelligence agencies missed any red flags that could have alerted authorities before the mosques were attacked.

WATCH | CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reports, where many families are still waiting to bury their dead.

The minister responsible for New Zealand's intelligence services told news outlets that over the past nine months the government has specifically been looking at the rise of alt-right extremists, as the movement has manifested itself in other countries.

Last Friday's attack wasn't the first time the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch had been targeted. In 2016, a group of neo-Nazis turned up with a pig's head.

Aliya Danzeisen with the Waikato Muslim Association says she and others spent nearly a year trying to get a group, claiming to be from New Zealand, kicked off Facebook for threatening posts which included talk of burning Muslims in cages.

"We have had times, especially in the last five to six years, feared for our children and feared for ourselves," Danzeisen says. 

She is adamant the community has seen a rise in what she calls nationalism and white supremacy.

Some immigrants describe the discrimination as persistent and real, even though they have been living in Christchurch for years.

Heaven Ikahsay immigrated to New Zealand from Sudan 10 years, and is the neighbour of one of the victims still recovering hospital. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

"I am not saying everyone is bad, there are good people," says Heaven Ikahsay a young mother who immigrated from Sudan to New Zealand ten years ago.

"But there are haters as well, people who don't like immigrants and who don't like us being here." 

She feels the attack didn't have anything do with religion, but rather immigration.

Ikahsay spoke with CBC News on the way into the Christchurch Hospital where she was visiting her neighbour who remains in critical condition after being shot at the Al-Noor mosque. 

She said he'd been through four surgeries since the shooting and was still unconscious.

More than 30 people remain in hospital, while a team of 120 work to identify all those who were killed, by examining fingerprints, DNA and dental records.

Police, meanwhile, said they are working "relentlessly" to formally identify all of the victims and release the bodies to families, saying it would be unforgivable to return the wrong body to a grieving family.