Gunman among three killed as Sydney cafe siege ends
Police said they were dealing with 'an armed incident,' and were trying to make contact with people inside the besieged cafe
The lone gunman and two hostages were killed and four other people wounded when police stormed a Sydney cafe where 17 people were being held early Tuesday, authorities said.
The gunman, Man Haron Monis - a 50-year-old Iranian refugee and self-styled religious leader who held out in the cafe for more than 16 hours - was shot and pronounced dead after being taken to hospital, New South Wales police said.
A man, aged 34, and a woman, 38, were also pronounced dead after being taken to hospital.
“It was the act of an individual,” NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said at a press conference.
Monis, a 50-year-old Iranian refugee and self-styled religious leader - convicted of sexual assault and known for sending hate letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed overseas - had been holed up in the cafe some 15 hours after the siege began.
Monis had been on bail charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and mother of his two children. He moved to Australia in 1996, and assumed the title of “Sheikh Haron,” The Independent reported.
Monis operated a pro-Islam website, YouTube channel, Facebook and Twitter pages in which he discusses his various police charges as being part of a targeted campaign against him.
“This is a one-off random individual. It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous,” his former lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness,” Conditsis said.
A wounded hostage, described as a woman in her 40s, was in a serious but stable condition, and was receiving treatment for a gunshot wound to the leg, a hospital official said.
Beginnings of a crisis
Earlier, police had stormed the Sydney cafe where he had taken hostages and displayed an “Islamic” flag, television footage showed.
Loud bangs and yelling were heard as heavily armed policemen stormed went into the café, AFP reporters near the scene reported after several more hostages ran out of the building in the city center and medics moved in to help.
The incident led to the shutting down of Australia’s largest city and escalated fears it could be an attack by Islamist militant sympathizers.
The situation has been condemned by Australia’s National Imams Council, which in a joint statement with the Grand Mufti of Australia said "such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam."
Six hours after the mid-morning siege began, television showed five hostages running out of the Lindt chocolate cafe and sheltering behind a heavily armed, black-clad SWAT team.
Meanwhile Monis has demanded an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) flag be delivered to him, according to Australian television’s Channel Ten, which says it has spoken to two of the hostages inside the café.
The report also claims the gunman has demanded he speak to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
“They also state there are 4 bombs... two inside the Lindt café at Martin Place - and two further in the Sydney CBD,” the report added.
However none of these claims have been substantiated by police.
Police said it was not known exactly how many more hostages remained in the cafe but it was not as high as the 30-40 that had been reported earlier. The remaining hostages were being held by at least one armed assailant, police said, but did not rule out that others could be involved.
PM Abbott, who has warned of militant plans to strike Australian targets, said there were indications the hostage situation at the cafe was politically motivated.
“This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australian people,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra, without providing any information on the siege.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against ISIS, is on high alert for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.
“We have moved to a footing that would be consistent with a terrorist event,” Andrew Scipione, police commissioner for the state of New South Wales, told reporters in Sydney.
The cafe was directly opposite a commercial television studio and footage earlier showed several people inside the cafe standing with their hands pressed against the windows.
Pictures showed a black and white flag similar to those used by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria being held up by what appeared to be a staff member and another woman. Local media reports said the flag was the Shahada, a general expression of faith in Islam, a translation of which is: “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
The incident forced the evacuation of nearby buildings in Sydney’s central business district and sent shockwaves around a country where many people have started to turn their attention to the approaching Christmas festive season following earlier security scares.
In September, Australian anti-terrorism police said they had thwarted an imminent threat to behead a random member of the public and days later, a teenager in Melbourne was shot dead after attacking two anti-terrorism officers with a knife.
Evacuating by ladder
Dozens of heavily armed police surrounded the cafe in Martin Place after the siege began around 9:45 a.m. local time. The area is home to the Reserve Bank of Australia, commercial banks and close to the New South Wales state parliament.
“I walked up to the door and then everyone was sitting down and the door’s locked which is pretty weird because it's never locked and there was one guy walking around with a hat and a beard,” a man who identified himself as Bruno, a worker at the cafe, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp, referring to the suspected assailant. He said he then turned away.
A couple of hundred people were being held back by cordons and a police SWAT team and the fire brigade's hazardous unit were on the scene, a Reuters witness said.
Several hours into the siege, police led about two dozen people out of a building opposite the cafe and through the cordon. Others were evacuated from the building above the cafe by ladder, television pictures showed.
Earlier, Lindt Australia Chief Executive Steve Loane told Sky Business there were about 10 staff working at the cafe and “probably 30 customers” although he said that figure was an estimate.
The Reserve Bank of Australia said staff had been locked down inside the building, and were all safe and accounted for.
The nearby U.S. consulate was also evacuated, according to an embassy spokeswoman, along with the Sydney Opera House.
Tourists were being let back into the world-famous venue by early afternoon.
Banks and shops close
Major banks closed their offices in the central business district and people were told to avoid the area. Shops in a four block radius were shut, leaving large parts of the CBD all but deserted by mid-afternoon.
Traders in currency markets said the hostage news may have contributed to a dip in the Australian dollar, which was already under pressure from global risk aversion as oil prices fell anew.
Ray Hadley, a popular radio jockey, said he had been contacted by a hostage and could hear the suspected gunman issuing orders in the background. He said he did not talk at any length to the hostage but police said declined to comment on his claim.
Concerns about an attack in Australia by radical Islamists have been growing for more than a year, with the security agency raising its national terrorism public alert to “high” in September.
That month, a spokesman for the Islamic State urged supporters in Western nations, including Australia, to attack civilians or military personnel at home.
Commenting on the siege, the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) said it “condemns the act unequivocally.”
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation also denounced the ongoing situation.
“The unfortunate incident was nothing but criminal in nature as holding people hostage could not be justified under any pretext,” a written statement from the organization said.