QUEBEC CITY (Reuters) - The French-Canadian student accused of killing six people during evening prayers in a Quebec City mosque had rented an apartment nearby, neighbours said on Tuesday, a sign he may have been targeting the house of worship.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, was charged in court on Monday with six counts of premeditated murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon after Sunday evening’s massacre at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec.
Police said he acted alone but did not release specific details of the weapon. RDI, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s French-language arm, cited sources as saying the gunman had a 9 mm handgun and a long gun, but the report did not provide further details.
The mass shooting, which was rare for Canada and which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned as terrorism, prompted an outpouring of support for the mosque and for Canada’s 1 million Muslims in the country of about 35 million.
Authorities in Quebec have called for a spirit of inclusivity, and police have tightened security at all religious institutions in the province, which had the second-highest rate of crimes motivated by religious prejudice among the provinces in 2014, second only to Ontario, according to police crime data collected by Statistics Canada.
The data showed that reported crimes of prejudice against Muslims in Canada more than doubled between 2012 and 2014.
Bissonnette, who said on his Facebook page that he was a fan of U.S. President Donald Trump and far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, had moved into an apartment in the beige block near the mosque in July and drove a Mitsubishi truck, said a neighbour, who asked not to be identified.
The Facebook page has been taken down since the shooting.
Another neighbour on the fourth floor never spoke to Bissonnette but frequently heard piano-playing from the apartment. A neighbour of his parents told the CBC that Bissonnette shared the apartment with his twin brother.
Police declined to discuss a motive for the shooting, but friends and online acquaintances told Canadian media that Bissonnette had expressed anti-immigration sentiments, especially towards Muslim refugees.
Both law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States believe the suspect was sympathetic to right-wing nationalist ideology, and that likely contributed to motive, U.S. officials said.
On Tuesday, the prime minister’s chief spokeswoman, Kate Purchase, demanded that Fox News channel in the United States either retract or update a tweet that the gunman was of Moroccan origin. She said the tweet dishonoured the victims.
The tweet was later taken down.
Fox initially corrected the error with a tweet and an update to the story on Monday, said Refet Kaplan, managing director of Fox News.com.
“The earlier tweets have now been deleted. We regret the error,” Kaplan said in a statement.
Purchase noted that Canada welcomed refugees and immigrants, effectively underscoring major differences between Trudeau and Trump, who on Friday temporarily banned citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, citing the risk of terrorism.
A large turnout at vigils in Quebec City, Montreal and other cities on Monday evening showed people rejected hate speech and wanted to be inclusive, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said.
“I think it’s a turning point for Quebec, to see people rallying around values like that,” he told reporters in Quebec City, the provincial capital, on Tuesday.
Bissonnette did not hide his hostility towards Muslims during his long interrogation by police, Montreal’s La Presse newspaper reported, quoting a source close to the investigation. He was also interested in guns and practiced shooting at a club, La Presse reported.
Bissonnette, a social science student at Université Laval and a former cadet, made a brief appearance in court on Monday under tight security. Prosecutors said all of the evidence was not yet ready and Bissonnette was set to appear again on Feb. 21. No charges were read in court and Bissonnette did not enter a plea.
His lawyer, Jean Petit, declined to comment at the courthouse on Monday.
Quebec’s public safety minister, Martin Coiteux, said security at all religious institutions across the province had been heightened, particularly at mosques.
He told reporters that while police always treated reports of religious harassment and hate speech seriously, they had not always done a good job of letting communities know the results of their probes.
Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Andrea Hopkins, Frances Kerry, Grant McCool; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Alan Crosby