Two dead in New Zealand welfare office shooting

WELLINGTON (AFP) - A homeless man who allegedly shot dead two women and seriously wounded a third when he opened fire in a New Zealand welfare office was arrested Monday after a seven-hour manhunt.

The man, who police named as Russell John Tully, is accused of entering the Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) office in the South Island town of Ashburton mid-morning and targeting workers.

The balaclava-clad 48-year-old, who locals said "had an axe to grind" with the agency, allegedly carried out the attack with a sawn-off shotgun then fled on a bicycle.

The small town was put in lockdown as about 100 heavily armed police scoured the area, with the gunman eventually tracked down at a property next to a nearby lake.

Superintendent Gary Knowles said no officers were injured but the accused suffered dog bites while he was being arrested.

"Nothing will give the families that have lost their loved ones closure but the community can go to sleep tonight with the thought that the person who we believe may be responsible is in custody," Supt Knowles told reporters.

The third shooting victim was reported to be in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

The Public Service Association, the union which covers WINZ employees, said it was arranging counselling and support for staff at the Ashburton office.

"That two people have died and one more is in a serious condition is inexcusable, and we hope the police can bring the shooter to justice," national secretary Richard Wagstaff said. "Nobody should go to work in fear that they might not return home."

The Ashburton Guardian newspaper reported last month that Tully, who returned to New Zealand after working as a miner in Australia, had recently become homeless and was living in a tent by the river.

It said he had approached a large number of local agencies, including WINZ, for help finding accommodation.

Police said the charges he will face had not been finalised.

New Zealand tightened its gun laws to restrict access to semi-automatic rifles in 1992, two years after a mentally disturbed man shot dead 13 people in the South Island town of Aramoana.

However, anyone over 16 can apply for a standard firearms licence after doing a safety course, which allows them to purchase and use a shotgun unsupervised.