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Canada ‘This can’t be real’: Witnesses recount night of Quebec City mosque shooting

A man looks at the memorial near the site of a fatal shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, Canada January 31, 2017.

MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS

They were always together, countrymen, neighbours and, above all, close friends.

On Sunday evening, Mamadou Tanou Barry and Ibrahima Barry died together, the first victims in a mass murder at the main mosque in their adopted home.

Within minutes, four more men lay dead in the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, with 19 more injured.

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Here is the sequence of events as recalled by multiple witnesses interviewed by The Globe and Mail.

The parking lot of the cultural centre's Grand Mosque, a former credit union in Quebec City's west end, began filling up for evening prayers shortly before 7:30 p.m.

According to mosque officials, the doors are equipped with a magnetic lock and timer, one of many security measures undertaken by the community, which has been the object of less grievous hate crimes over the past decade (there are also multiple security cameras, which provided a visual record for investigators).

The doors opened just before prayers were to begin – it's unclear exactly when; most witnesses agree it was between 7:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

The evening ritual lasts seven to 10 minutes, but some inside the mosque reported hearing a commotion – one mistook it for fireworks – outside one of the entrances to the rectangular prayer room, probably around 7:50 p.m.

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In fact, it was Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, and Ibrahima Barry, 39 – the pair were distant cousins of Guinean origin – encountering the gunman. Both were shot where they stood.

Then, witnesses say, the shooter moved inside, where prayers were ending and a Koranic reading circle was taking form.

A short while earlier, Selma Yahiaoui, 32, and her husband Kamel Ahmanache had gone out for supper at an Egyptian restaurant, when they decided to go to the mosque on boulevard Sainte-Foy.

Mr. Ahmanache went to pray on the ground floor, in a room filled with men, but the women's prayer room upstairs was empty.

"I felt uneasy, but I turned on the lights and two more women arrived for the prayer, but they left before my husband was done," she said.

Ms. Yahiaoui saw her husband and the group of men on a closed-circuit feed from a security camera when she heard the shots.

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She could see men running around the room as the firing continued; it was interrupted by the gunman reloading his weapon. "It was ta-ta-ta, and stopped three times."

Several witnesses reported seeing a firearm that resembled an AK-47 assault rifle, a light weapon that is ubiquitous in most parts of the world but is difficult to obtain in Canada, where nearly all its variants are prohibited arms.

In any case, the rifle jammed.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Ahmed Ech-Chabady, a martial-arts instructor who was on hand with his eight-year-old son.

All the witnesses interviewed agreed the shooter was also carrying a handgun.

Ms. Yahiaoui said the attacker tried the door that leads to the upstairs prayer room.

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Youcef Kaddour, who rushed up from the basement when the shooting started, saw his friend Azzedine Soufiane, a butcher and fixture of the community, confront the gunman as he tried to load his weapon. Mr. Soufiane was shot multiple times and died.

After entering the main prayer area, the shooter turned to face the right side of the room, then began firing.

But Mr. Soufiane's heroism, corroborated by several accounts, allowed several mosque-goers to either hide or feign that they'd been shot.

"People were screaming everywhere, we phoned 911, it must have lasted for two or three minutes," Mr. Kaddour said, later adding "all I kept thinking was 'this can't be real.'"

One of the men in the room collapsed from a heart attack (he would later count among the dead).

The first 911 call, presumably from inside the building, was logged at 7:55 p.m., by which time it appears the shooter had fled.

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Within minutes, police swarmed into the building – several witnesses expressed surprise at the vigour with which they were manhandled.

Ms. Yahiaoui said police grabbed and hauled her downstairs.

"I walked in and saw the dead and the injured and I was screaming because I couldn't see my husband," she said.

She started rifling through coats, looking for her husband Kamel's, and wept when she saw his hand waving to her from his hiding place behind a wall.

The police quickly arrested Mohamed Belkhadir, a Laval University student who at least one witness said was trying to perform first aid on one of the victims.

Mr. Belkhadir ran when he saw more armed men running up – it was the police – and tumbled into the snow near the rifle, by then abandoned by the shooter.

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Mr. Belkhadir was originally held as a suspect but eventually released.

At 8:10 p.m., 911 recorded a call from a man claiming he'd been involved in the shooting.

By that point, the scene was cordoned off and a "code orange" had been declared in the city's main hospitals.

The seriously wounded were by then on the way either to Hôpital l'Enfant-Jésus, the city's main trauma centre, 13 kilometres away.

Lighter cases were transported to the nearby St. Francois d'Assise hospital and Centre hospitalier de l'Université Laval.

Guards were quickly posted at emergency-room entrances to screen visitors.

By then, police cruisers were already racing eastward on highway 440 toward l'Ile d'Orléans, a bucolic agricultural community, where the unidentified 911 caller said he'd be waiting at the foot of a bridge.

At 8:55 p.m, he was in custody.

The next day the suspect would be identified as Alexandre Bissonnette.

With reports from André Picard in Quebec, Tu Thanh Ha in Toronto and Les Perreaux in Montreal

Members of the mosque in Quebec City where a shooting took place say they are grateful to have support from so many people in the community.
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