The man who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 had plans to target a third mosque, his sentencing hearing has heard.

Brenton Tarrant also planned to burn down the mosques, wanting to “inflict as many fatalities as possible”.

The Australian has pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 attempted murders and one charge of terrorism.

Tarrant, 29, faces life in prison, possibly without parole – a sentence never before imposed in New Zealand.

He was confronted by survivors and relatives of the victims in court on Monday.

“You gave yourself the authority to take the souls of 51 innocent people, their only crime – in your eyes – being Muslims,” said Maysoon Salama, whose son Atta Elayyan was killed.

“You transgress beyond comprehension, I cannot forgive you.”

The attacks, parts of which the gunman streamed live online, saw him open fire at two mosques in Christchurch on 15 March last year.

He first drove to the Al Noor mosque, firing on people taking part in Friday prayers. He then drove about 5km (3 miles) to the Linwood mosque and killed more people.

The attack sent shockwaves around the world and prompted New Zealand to make swift changes to its gun laws.

How did the attack unfold?
The sentencing hearing, which will last four days, began on Monday morning in Christchurch.

Covid-19 restrictions mean the main court room is relatively empty. Hundreds will watch the proceedings on video feeds from other courtrooms in the city to allow for social distancing measures.

Dressed in grey prison clothes and surrounded in the dock by three police officers, the gunman reportedly remained silent, occasionally looking around the room where survivors and relatives of the victims were sitting.

Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes told the court that the gunman had began formulating a plan years earlier, and his goal was to “inflict as many fatalities as possible”.

He gathered information about mosques in New Zealand – studying floor plans, locations and further details – with the aim of targeting them at the time they would be busiest.

In the months before the attack, he travelled to Christchurch and flew a drone over his primary target, the Al Noor mosque.

He also planned to target the Ashburton Mosque in addition to the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, but was detained while on his way to the third mosque.

On the day of the attack, he shot people on the street as they tried to escape the Al Noor mosque, the court heard.