A gunman and two hostages were killed as police stormed a cafe in central Sydney, ending a more than 16-hour siege in a pre-dawn shootout.
Rapid gunshots and explosions were heard inside the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in the central business district for about 30 seconds just after 2 a.m. Tuesday. Police responded after gunfire was heard inside the building, New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters.
The “lone gunman was shot and killed,” Scipione said, while two hostages -- a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman also died. Officers acted because they “believed that at that time, if they didn’t enter, there would have been many more lives lost.”
The hostage-taker was Man Haron Monis, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified. Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra the gunman was well known to Federal and State authorities and had a long history of violent crime. He was charged last year with being an accessory to murder and had sent offensive letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
The gunman forced some of the 17 hostages to display a black flag with white Arabic lettering known as a Shahada in the window of the cafe proclaiming Muhammad is the prophet of God.
“He sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult,” Abbott said, referring to Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot that has this year expanded the area under its control in both Iraq and Syria. “Tragically, there are people in our community ready to engage in politically motivated violence.”
The cafe’s manager, Tori Johnson, died in the final moments of the siege as he attempted to wrestle a shotgun from the hostage taker, Nine television network reported on its website. Sydney barrister Katrina Dawson also died, the New South Wales Bar Association said in a statement, adding two other barristers were among the hostages.
Four of the captives worked for Westpac Banking Corp. (WBC), which said in a statement that the employees were all now safe. One was undergoing medical treatment for non-life-threatening injuries, the bank said.
Police escort a hostage, second right, with the help of a paramedic, right, during a hostage siege in the central business district of Sydney on Dec. 16, 2014.
A total of four people were injured, according to police. Among them was an officer with a non-life threatening gunshot wound to his face and a woman shot in the shoulder.
The siege, which began on Monday morning, triggered a lockdown in Sydney’s business district, three months after Australia raised its terrorism alert to the highest level in a decade. Five of the hostages escaped from the building on the first day, while about six fled in the closing moments of the siege.
Monis was charged in November 2013 with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported. In April, he was charged with the indecent and sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney in 2002. He was on bail in relation to both cases, it said.
“This guy was clearly a risk, judging by his website and his criminal background, and it looked like he was trying to gain the attention of ISIS by maximizing attention with his actions and social media campaign,” Anne Aly, who runs a counter-terrorism research program at Curtin University in Perth, said by phone. “He was clearly highly unstable, he was a nutter. He was a man after notoriety, not fighting for an ideology.”
Monis was also indicted on charges of sending offensive letters to families of Australian troops who died in Afghanistan, according to court documents. The current hostage crisis followed an unsuccessful attempt to have the charges related to the letters, for which he was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and placed on a two-year good-behavior bond, overturned, the Herald reported.
He alleged the charges against him were laid for political reasons and likened himself to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the newspaper said.
Abbott said Cabinet’s National Security Committee would meet today and conveyed his sympathies to the families of the dead hostages.
People run with their hands up from the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place during a hostage standoff in Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 16, 2014.
Parts of Martin Place remained cordoned off Tuesday morning as people on the way to work stopped to look toward the cafe where a few police officers were still standing. Some took photos while others left bunches of flowers.
“I’m just sad, very sad,” said Voula Tzanis, 54, who works as a typist at a law firm around the corner from the cafe. “You go to get a coffee and you die. It’s sad.”
The siege received blanket media coverage after the gunman took over the cafe at about 9:45 a.m., meters from the newsroom of Channel Seven, the nation’s most-watched commercial broadcaster.
The earliest footage showed some hostages with their palms pressed against the cafe’s window, holding up the black flag. Officers in riot gear and armed with automatic weapons laid siege to the building, which is next to the Reserve Bank of Australia. Offices in the vicinity were locked down on Monday and the financial district was left largely empty.
“All around the world, authorities are having to adjust to nuances in these types of attacks,” said Michael McKinley, a visiting fellow and terrorism specialist at the Australian National University. “It’s been rare in Australia so people are learning as they go.”
Clive Williams, a former military intelligence officer, said the flag displayed in the cafe appeared to be “Shahada,” which is used by some Islamic State followers though isn’t the group’s official insignia.
As the crisis unfolded yesterday, KPMG International locked down its office and Tiffany & Co., Rolex and Jimmy Choo were among nearby stores that closed. The U.S. consulate on Martin Place was evacuated.
Authorities cited the threat posed by Islamic State when they raised the terrorism alert earlier this year. Days later, police carried out their largest anti-terrorism raid, foiling an alleged plot to randomly abduct and behead a member of the public.
An 18-year-old man was shot and killed on Sept. 23 after wounding two counter-terrorism officers in Melbourne with a knife. He stabbed the officers in an unprovoked attack outside a police station, where he was due to be interviewed by police after waving an Islamic State flag inside a shopping center.