By: Kristen Gelineau
In a dramatic end to a hostage crisis that dragged on for over 16 hours, heavily-armed Australian security forces stormed the Lindt Cafe in Sydney where an unknown number of people, including two Indians, were taken hostage by an Iranian-origin gunman on Monday.
Police confirmed that three persons, including the gunman, were killed. The gunman was identified as Man Haron Monis, 49, an Iranian refugee and self-styled sheikh who is facing charges including sexual assault and accessory to murder in separate cases.
According to the police, a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman also died. Four other people were injured. A female hostage was shot in the leg, a hospital official said, and at least two people were wheeled out of the cafe on stretchers.
The standoff ended when a loud bang was heard from the cafe and five people ran out. Police then swooped into the building, and there was a flurry of loud bangs.
Monis has long been on officials’ radar. Last year, he was sentenced to 300 hours of community service for writing offensive letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. He was later charged with being an accessory to the murder of his former wife. Earlier this year, he was charged with the sexual assault of a woman in 2002.
“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,’’ said Conditsis.
The siege began at around 9:45 am local time in Martin Place, a plaza in Sydney’s financial and shopping district that is packed with holiday shoppers this time of year. The gunman walked into the cafe, locked the door and captured an unknown number of cafe workers and customers. The hostages were forced to display a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith, raising fears of a jihadist attack.
Five of the hostages later managed to escape. The first three people ran out of the cafe six hours into the hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterward. Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.
Throughout the day, several people were seen with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the window of the cafe. As night set in, the lights inside the cafe were switched off. Armed police guarding the area outside fitted their helmets with green-glowing night goggles.
Unconfirmed reports said that the gunman had listed three demands: an ISIS flag; a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott; and a message to be relayed by the media to his “two brothers” that they should not explode the bombs they were carrying.
Several media outlets reported they had been contacted by hostages passing on claims and demands from the gunman, including the possible presence of explosives in the building and elsewhere in the city. Police said they were aware of media reports but said the “situation is contained in one area”.
Earlier in the day, Chris Reason, a reporter at Channel Seven, whose office is opposite the cafe, said about 15 hostages could be seen inside the cafe. “From inside Martin Place newsroom we can see gunman is rotating hostages, forcing them to stand against windows, sometimes 2 hours at a time,” he tweeted. He said the man carried what appeared to be a pump-action shotgun, was unshaven and wore a white shirt and a black cap.
“This is a very disturbing incident. It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation,’’ said Abbott.
In a message on its Facebook page, Lindt Australia said: “We are deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families.”
Australia, a staunch ally of the US and its escalating action against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, is on high alert for attacks by homegrown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.