ASIA

Gunman among 3 dead after police storm Sydney cafe, ending siege

Police storm cafe in downtown Sydney where hostages had been held at gunpoint

Sixteen hours after a self-styled Muslim cleric took at least 17 hostages in a cafe in the heart of Sydney, armed police stormed the building, ending the crisis. Three people, including the gunman, were killed.

The dead hostages were a 38-year-old woman and a 34-year-old man, authorities said. Four people were injured, police told reporters Tuesday morning local time.

“This morning I come before you with the heaviest of hearts; unbelievably overnight we have lost some of our own,” New South Wales Premier Michael Baird said at the news conference. “We are shaken by a tragedy none of us could have imagined.”

Police said they believe that the gunman acted alone. He was widely reported to be Iranian-born Man Haron Monis, 50.

“This is an isolated incident,” Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said. “This should never destroy or change our way of life. This will not change the things that we hold dear in this country.”

In a separate appearance, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott expressed his thanks to police for their handling of the situation and offered sympathy to the victims.

“Our hearts go out to all of those caught in this appalling incident,” he said. “These events do demonstrate that even a country as free, as open, as generous, as safe as ours is vulnerable."

The standoff paralyzed Australia’s largest city, as authorities closed off a portion of central Sydney after the siege began Monday morning local time. It was Tuesday morning before police made their move after hearing gunshots in the Lindt Chocolat Cafe.

“They made the call because they believed at that time if they didn’t enter, there would have been many more lives lost,” Scipione said.

“There was a number of gunshots that were heard, that caused them to move straight to what we call the ... emergency action plan and that caused them to enter,” he said.

There had been reports that the gunman had two bombs in the cafe and had planted two elsewhere, but Scipione said no explosive devices were found in the cafe.

He paid tribute to the courage of the police and also the hostages.

He said the officers involved “have saved many lives. Thank you that you’re there and prepared to do this, to put your life on the line to keep us safe.”

One officer was shot in the face in the incident but was doing well and is “grateful to be alive,” Scipione said.

Television caught images of the police assault, which began with a flurry of loud bangs, after which officers could be seen swooping into the cafe. Explosions could be heard shortly after six hostages emerged from the cafe, one of them being assisted by anti-terrorism forces. More were removed on gurneys a short time later as police stormed the building.

After the police moved in, one weeping woman was helped out by officers and at least two other people were wheeled out on stretchers.

Monis, widely identified by Australian media as the gunman, was an Iranian-born radical who claimed to be a Muslim sheik and has been charged in a series of violent crimes.

His former lawyer described him as disturbed, and said he was not acting in concert with any terrorist organization.

“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,” the lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness,” Conditsis said.

Monis arrived in Australia in 1996 as a refugee, and if he is implicated in the crime, it may inflame local sentiment against refugees arriving by boat, a hot-button issue in Australia.

Monis had been facing charges as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, and was also charged earlier this year with dozens of counts of sexual assault, allegedly carried out when he claimed to be a spiritual healer and was treating women. Haron was due in court in February to answer the charges.

Monis gained notoriety in Australia in recent years over a hate-mail campaign targeting the families of soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan, comparing their bodies to pigs.

He was charged and convicted for using the postal service to harass people. He appealed that conviction, claiming he was a peace activist whose rights to freedom of speech had been infringed.

Monis has repeatedly attacked Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Abbott, on social media, calling them racists and terrorists. He claimed that he was under constant attack by the authorities and had been investigated by the national intelligence agency.

He responded bitterly to recent comments by Abbott that migrants who moved to Australia should be willing to join “Team Australia.”

“Shame on Team Australia and shame on those racist and terrorist Australians who support the governments of America and its allies including Australia,” Haron said on Facebook, before his page was taken down late Monday. He described his Facebook page as “Team Islam against Australian oppression and terrorism.”

Monis also posted a letter on his Facebook page attacking Abbott over Australia's military involvement in Afghanistan, saying this had made the world -- and Australia -- more dangerous.

His website bears a photograph of a dead woman and three children, all bleeding, with the words: “This is an evidence for the terrorism of America and its allies including Australia. This result of their air strikes.”

Monis accused the “barbaric” Australians of torture and last week praised the Islamic State over its actions in Iraq and Syria.

Iran condemned the hostage-taking incident.

“Any terrorist action to tarnish the compassionate image of Islam is condemned,” Marziyeh Afkham, the spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said. A psychoanalysis of the suspect has been sent to Australian officials, she said.

The drama in Sydney began around 9:45 a.m. Monday in Martin Place, a plaza in the capital’s financial and shopping district. The area was packed with holiday shoppers as well as workers from nearby buildings taking a midmorning break.

The cafe is not far from courts, the parliament of New South Wales state, the U.S. Consulate and the Reserve Bank of Australia. Once the siege began, businesses and courts in the neighborhood were evacuated and closed for the day. The iconic Sydney Opera House, less than a mile away, also was evacuated.

Aside from the chop-chop sound of helicopters overhead, there was an eerie quiet, pierced with the sound of sirens. Surrounding streets were filled with police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.

Abbott confirmed late Monday local time that the gunman appeared to have “a political motivation,” and local media reported that the gunman was trying to obtain an Islamic State flag in exchange for some of the hostages.

Two people inside the cafe had been seen pressed up against the window holding a black flag with Arabic writing early in the siege. The flag appeared to say: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

As the day wore on, Australia's Network Ten Eyewitness News reported that two female hostages in the cafe had phoned the station and spoken of two bombs planted in the cafe and two other bombs elsewhere in downtown Sydney. Police declined to confirm that.

“I can't speculate on what may or may not be, and that would be very unhelpful at the moment,” Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said at an evening news conference. “At the moment we know that the person we are dealing with is armed.”

The women were “hysterical” and believed that their lives were in immediate danger, according to the network.

The hostages also conveyed the demands of the gunman, who called himself “The Brother,” according to the network: to speak to Abbott and to have an Islamic State flag delivered to the cafe. In return for the flag, one hostage would be freed, they reportedly said.

The network said on Twitter that police listened in to the network's talks with the hostages, and “advised every step of the way.”

Burn declined to call the incident a terrorist act. “We still don't know what the motivation might be,” she said, adding that authorities “want to resolve this peacefully.”

But authorities in New South Wales did call up the local counter terrorism unit, Task Force Pioneer.

“This is really about setting up command and control,” Burn said.

The attack came the same day police filed terror charges against two men, one accused of terror financing. Both had been arrested in Australia’s biggest series of terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane in September; one had been freed but was rearrested Monday. Police said there was no connection between the morning arrests and the siege, Fairfax media reported.

Booth, a special correspondent, reported from Sydney and Dixon from Kenya. Staff writers Michael Muskal and Lauren Raab in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

1:51 p.m.: This article has been updated with Prime Minister Tony Abbott's comments.

12:06 p.m. This article has been updated with quotes and details from a police briefing, and with a statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

10:50 a.m.: This article has been updated with the number of dead and injured.

9:52 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Man Haron Monis' former lawyer and other details.

7:56 a.m.: This article has been updated with the siege ending and two deaths reported.

7:39 a.m.: This article has been updated with police storming the building.

7:26 a.m.: This article has been updated with reports of explosions and of hostages leaving the building.

6:48 a.m.: This article has been updated with reports about the identity of the gunman.

4:17 a.m.: This article has been updated with a quote from Islamic leader Hamid Hadi. 

4:02 a.m.: This article has been updated with reports from the scene, hostage video and reactions from Australians. 

2:32 a.m.: This article has been updated with information from latest police news conference.

12:33 a.m.: This article has been updated with witnesses' quotes and details from the scene. 

12:17 a.m.: This article has been updated with reports from a local reporter who said he can see inside the cafe. 

12:09 a.m. Monday: This article has been updated with information from a police news conference. 

Dec. 15, 12:01 a.m.: This article has been updated with information from a police news conference Monday evening Sydney time. 

11:47 p.m.: This article has been updated with Twitter messages from a group in support of the gunman. 

11:34 p.m.: This article has been updated with the gunman demanding to meet with the prime minister, and with reports that he has planted four bombs. 

10:56 p.m.: This article has updated with comments from a security analyst. 

10:48 p.m.: This article has been updated with radio host getting a call from a hostage about 1 p.m. Sydney time.

10:32 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from a waiter who works at the cafe. 

10:05 p.m.: This article has been updated with reports of two more captives going free.

9:59 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and background.  

9:17 p.m.: This article has been updated to add a statement from Muslim leaders.

9:01 p.m.: This article has been updated to add reports that three captives have left the cafe.

8:03 p.m.: This article has been updated to add information about ride-sharing service Uber.

7:57 p.m.: This article has been updated to add information about a September counter-terrorism operation in Australia.

7:18 p.m.: This article has been updated to add comments by New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.

6:29 p.m.: This article has been updated to add comments by Zain Ali of the University of Auckland.

6:05 p.m.: This article has been updated to add comments by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

5:37 p.m.: This article has been updated to add statements by New South Wales state police. 

5:02 p.m.: This article has been updated to add statements by the prime minister and Mike Baird, the premier of New South Wales.

This article was originally published at 4:41 p.m. on Dec. 14.

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