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New Zealand massacre suspect flashes white power sign in court; death toll rises to 50

Australian man charged with murders; one suspect is released
A vigil was held for the victims of Friday's massacre in Christchurch (AFP)

The Australian man considered the main suspect in Friday's massacre of at least 50 Muslims in New Zealand had intended to continue his attack when he was captured, the country's prime minister said as the suspect appeared in court. 

Brenton Tarrant, 28, flashed a white power sign as he appeared in court to be charged with murder on Saturday. Police said on Saturday that the death toll had risen to 50 from 49, with another 50 people wounded in the attack.

The additional death was discovered as bodies were being removed from the two buildings in the southern city of Christchurch, Police Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters early on Sunday.

The gunman had opened fire on worshippers at the Al Noor mosque, filming the murder 0f 41 people, before moving on to the Linwood mosque in the same city. 

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Friday's attack, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labelled as terrorism, was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand and the country had raised its security threat level to the highest.

Footage of the attack on one of the mosques was broadcast live on Facebook, and a "manifesto" denouncing immigrants as "invaders" was also posted online via links to related social media accounts.

The video showed a man driving to the Al Noor mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people with a semi-automatic rifle with high-capacity magazines. Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay on the floor, the video showed.

"The offender was mobile, there were two other firearms in the vehicle that the offender was in, and it absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack," Ardern told reporters in Christchurch.

Ardern's office said the suspect had sent the "manifesto" in a bulk email that included a generic address for the prime minister, the opposition leader, the speaker of parliament and around 70 media outlets a matter of minutes before the attack.

A spokesman said the email didn't describe the specific incident and there was "nothing in the content or timing that would have been able to prevent the attack".

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The staff member monitoring the accounts sent it as soon as it was seen to parliamentary services, who sent it to police, the spokesman said.

Bush also said that two suspects arrested at a police cordon during the attacks when a firearm was found in their car were not directly involved in Tarrant's assault.

One of the two, a woman, has been released, and a man remains in custody on firearms charges, he said.

A third man was also arrested and will appear in court on Monday on charges that are "tangential" to the attacks, though he was not believed to be involved in the shootings, he said.

"At this moment, only one person has been charged in relation to these attacks," Bush said, referring to Tarrant.

None of those arrested had a criminal history or were on watchlists in New Zealand or Australia.

Ardern said she "asked our agencies this morning to work swiftly on assessing whether there was any activity on social media or otherwise, that should have triggered a response".

She added these issues would be addressed at a cabinet meeting on Monday.

'Your words matter'

Muslim leaders have said politicians, including US President Donald Trump, have "normalised" the Islamophobia that led to the attack. 

"In many white supremacists' attacks on the American-Muslim community, the attackers cite Trump and cite his policies," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said at a news conference on Friday in Washington.

"I don't think any one of us should be surprised that what he says and what he does impacts the attitudes and actions of people, not only at home but now abroad."

An imam who was leading prayers at the Linwood mosque at the time of the attack said the Muslim community would not be shaken by the massacre.

"We still love this country," said Ibrahim Abdul Halim, vowing that extremists would "never ever touch our confidence".

Meanwhile, Australian Senator Fraser Anning has been the focus of controversy since he released a statement in the aftermath of the attack that seemed to blame Muslims and immigrants for the violence against them. 

On Saturday, he was filmed twice hitting a boy who had cracked an egg on his head as he spoke to media.

Australia also revoked a visa for the provocative online figure Milo Yiannopoulos, who was planning an upcoming speaking tour, for describing Islam as "barbaric" shortly after the attack, Australia's ABC News reported. 

His entry into Australia had already been subject to a debate and the government's internal advice had been to reject his entry. 

The visa was however issued last week by Immigration Minister David Coleman, who has now overturned the decision because of Yiannopoulos's comments.