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New Zealand mosque shooter changes plea to guilty

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Wellington (AFP)

In an unexpected reversal, the Australian accused of murdering 51 Muslim worshippers in last year's mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques pleaded guilty to all charges on Thursday.

Brenton Tarrant, 29, had previously denied 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one of engaging in a terrorist act but changed his plea after a hurriedly arranged court hearing.

"Yes, guilty," Tarrant told Christchurch High Court via videolink from Auckland Prison as the charges were read out to him.

Tarrant, wearing a grey top, stared intently at the camera while making his plea.

No reason was given for the change, which means Tarrant will no longer stand trial, a process authorities had feared he would use as a platform to promote his racist ideology.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the admission of guilt would provide some relief to the many people whose lives were shattered in the attack.

"These guilty pleas and conviction bring accountability for what happened and also save the families who lost loved ones, those who were injured, and other witnesses, the ordeal of a trial," she said.

Judge Cameron Mander recorded convictions on all charges and said Tarrant would be sentenced at a date yet to be determined.

"The guilty pleas represent a very significant step towards bringing finality to this criminal proceeding," he said.

The plea came with New Zealand in its first day of a four-week COVID-19 lockdown.

Mander said sentencing would take place "at a time when victims and their families can attend the court in person", he said.

The judge said advance reporting that Thursday's hearing was taking place was suppressed in case Tarrant changed his mind at the last minute and maintained his innocence.

- 'The right direction' -

Tarrant's trial had been due to start on June 2 and last some six weeks and police commissioner Mike Bush said Thursday's hearing was hastily arranged after the gunman contacted his lawyers on Tuesday.

"Police appreciate this news will come as a surprise to the victims and the public, some of whom may have wished to be present in the courtroom," he said in a statement.

Bush said imams from the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, the ones targeted by Tarrant, were among only 17 people allowed in court to hear the revised plea.

There was relief in New Zealand's small and tight-knit Muslim community that they would not have to endure a drawn-out trial raking over painful details of the worst mass shooting in modern New Zealand history.

"I have been praying for him and he has taken the right direction," Farid Ahmed, whose wife Husna was killed, told TVNZ.

"I am pleased he is feeling guilty. It is a good start."

Tarrant armed himself with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons and attacked the Al Noor mosque first, before moving on to the Linwood prayer centre, livestreaming the killings as he went.

His victims were all Muslim and included children, women and the elderly.

In a rambling manifesto posted online before the killing spree, Tarrant said he had moved to New Zealand with the specific aim of conducting an atrocity against Muslims.

His actions prompted Ardern, who has vowed never to say the killer's name, to tighten New Zealand's gun laws and launch a campaign to curb online extremism.

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