Terror in Sydney: gunman and 2 hostages dead as police storm cafe
SYDNEY // An Islamist gunman and two of his hostages were killed as police stormed a Sydney cafe to end a 16 hour-siege.
An intense volley of explosions, gunshots and flashes of light erupted in the early hours as Swat teams swept into the Lindt Cafe, a Swiss chocolate emporium and coffee shop in the heart of Sydney’s retail and financial district.
The gunman, Man Haron Monis, 49, who had been on bail, charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, and with sexually assaulting several women, was killed in the shoot out.
Last year, Monis, who was born in Iran and received political asylum in Australia in 1996, was convicted of sending hate mail to the families of Australian soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. On Friday, the high court rejected his appeal against that conviction.
Hostages were seen fleeing the cafe just before police with assault rifles and body armour moved in, throwing stun grenades as they went. Once the shooting was over a weeping woman was carried away by the police while several injured were taken away on stretchers. Medics were seen trying to resuscitate one person.
Earlier, police had tried to negotiate with Monis, who walked into the cafe shortly before 10am local time, armed with a pump-action shotgun.
Monis forced the captives to display an Islamic flag in the front window.
Police said the number of hostages held in the cafe was fewer than 30, while Channel Seven TV network — whose offices are directly opposite Lindt — said they saw at least 15 different faces at the windows.
At about 5pm, five hostages emerged through a side door. It is not clear whether they escaped or were released.
At around 2am local time the police Swat units stationed around the cafe sprang into action. There was “a lot of yelling … a lot of banging”, said an Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter at the scene. “And then repeated gunfire … or some other incendiary or explosive device, perhaps some sort of a stun grenade.”
A large section of the city — made up of shops, banks, law courts and government offices — was cordoned off and thousands of people were evacuated in one of Australia’s biggest security scares for decades.
Key buildings nearby, including the Reserve Bank of Australia, the headquarters of two of Australia’s biggest banks, the New South Wales Supreme Court and the office of the state premier, were either evacuated or locked down.
About seven hours after the siege began, the first five hostages ran out into Martin Place, a walkway normally thronged with shoppers and office workers but deserted yesterday. They included two terrified women, who ran into the arms of heavily armed paramilitary police.
Staff in brown Lindt aprons and customers had been forced to stand up against the front windows, arms in the air. They were also made to hold up a flag with the words of the Shahada, a testament of Muslim faith. The flag has been co-opted by extremist groups in recent years.
Police helped office workers on the floor above Lindt to scramble out of a window, with the help of small ladders. Elsewhere, people used fire exits to escape.
A group of Muslim leaders expressed their “utter shock and horror” at the siege and called for calm.
An interfaith prayer meeting was held last night at one of Sydney’s grand mosques, while the Grand Mufti of Australia, Professor Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, issued a statement denouncing “this criminal act”.
During the day, a number of hostages called TV and radio stations, apparently at Monis’s bidding. They passed on his demands, which reportedly included an ISIL flag and a meeting with the Australian prime minster Tony Abbott.
In a nationally televised address, Mr Abbott said he could think of “almost nothing more distressing, more terrifying, than to be caught up in such a situation”.
The siege follows an escalation of tensions in recent months.
In September, police launched mass antiterrorism raids in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, claiming to have foiled a plot in Sydney to seize a member of the public, behead the person publicly and post the video online.
Days later, an 18-year-old man was shot dead by police after stabbing two officers outside a police station in suburban Melbourne.
Security agencies have warned of the risk posed by Australians fighting with ISIL in Iraq and Syria who return home radicalised. New laws have made it illegal to travel to such war zones without legitimate reason.
There are believed to be about 150 Australians fighting with ISIL and other militant Islamist groups in the Middle East, with about 20 having returned home.
Other laws passed in recent months have given police and security forces expanded powers to arrest and detain suspects, as well as permitting them to secretly seize passports and search properties without advance warning.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters
Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM