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New Zealand Begins Returning Bodies from Mosque Shootings to Families

A Muslim family stands across the road from the Dean Street mosque when worshipers were gunned down in Christchurch on March 17, 2019.

New Zealand authorities on Sunday started returning some of the bodies of the 50 people killed in Friday's massacre at two mosques to their families so that they can be buried according to Muslim tradition.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said all bodies will be returned by Wednesday. She said that six disaster victim identification experts have flown in from Australia to help in the identification process.

Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall said her office is "working as quickly as possible" to make sure it returns the right body to the right family. "There could be nothing worse," she said, "than giving the wrong body to the wrong family. This is not going to happen here."

Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha said Sunday that his office has met with leaders of the Muslim community to help them to understand the lengthy autopsy process necessary for a criminal investigation, since it is traditional in Islam to bury a body within 24 hours after death.

The names of the victims have not been made public, although a preliminary list has been shared with relatives.

Authorities have accused a 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Harris Tarrant, of carrying out the horrific attack. He is the only person in custody linked to the killings and has been charged with murder.

New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said three other people who were initially detained were not involved in the attack, but has not ruled out the possibility of other suspects.

"I will not be saying anything conclusive until we are absolutely convinced as to how many people were involved, but we hope to be able to give that advice over the next few days," Bush said.

He said that because of the need for evidence against Tarrant in legal proceedings to come, authorities "have to be absolutely clear on the cause of death and confirm their identity" before bodies can be released to their loved ones. "But we are so aware of the cultural and religious needs. So we are doing that as quickly and as sensitively as possible."

Ardern said that she was one of more than 30 recipients of a 74-page white nationalist manifesto emailed by Tarrant nine minutes before his terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch. He denounced Muslims and called immigrants "invaders" in the manifesto.

She said, however, that she did not "directly receive it" and the document did not give a location for the attacks.

Ardern said Tarrant, a self-proclaimed white nationalist, "will certainly face the justice system of New Zealand."

Earlier Ardern called the mass shooting "an extraordinary act of violence." She said the shooter had five guns, two of them semi-automatic. All the weapons were legally obtained.

The prime minister asserted several times during a Sunday afternoon press conference that "there will be changes to our gun laws." She said details will be discussed at a meeting of her government's Cabinet on Monday.

The death toll in the mass shooting rose to 50 after emergency workers found another body at one of the crime scenes.

Police Commissioner Bush announced that all the bodies from both mosques had been removed and and that in doing so, police were able to locate a further victim.

Tarrant, the suspect, was led by two armed guards into a Christchurch court Saturday where a judge read one charge of murder to him. He wore prison robes and handcuffs and did not speak.

Reporters in the courtroom said the suspect smiled during his appearance. A photo shows him holding his left hand in an upside-down "OK" symbol, a gesture used by white supremacist groups.

After the suspect left the court, the judge said that while "there is one charge of murder brought at the moment, it is reasonable to assume that there will be others."

Tarrant has not yet entered a plea. His next court appearance is set for April 5.

Ardern said 34 people are in hospitals after being wounded in the shooting. Twelve of those people are in critical condition.

Ardern said Saturday that Tarrant's onslaught was cut short when he was apprehended. "It was his intention to continue his attack," the prime minister said.