TWO hostages and a lone gunman died after armed police stormed a Sydney café to end a 16-hour siege yesterday. Police confirmed a 34-year-old man and a woman aged 38 had died. The 50-year-old Iranian-born hostage-taker was declared dead at hospital. A further four people were wounded.
Amid a barrage of gunfire, a specialist team raided the Lindt Chocolat Café in Martin Place, a busy shopping area in the city’s business district, after they heard a number of shots coming from inside, New South Wales police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said.
He said: “They made the call [to go in] because they believed that, at that time, if they didn’t enter, there would have been many more lives lost.”
The gunman was identified as Iranian refugee Man Haron Monis, who was once prosecuted for sending offensive letters to families of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan.
Commissioner Scipione refused to say whether the two hostages who were killed were caught in crossfire with police or shot by the gunman.
He said there had been a total of 17 hostages when the siege began. He also confirmed two women had been taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, a male police officer suffered a non-life-threatening wound to his face from gunshot pellets, and another woman was taken to hospital as a precaution. Several hostages, some covered in blood, were treated by medics outside the café.
Some of the hostages had managed to flee the scene before the ordeal ended. They looked terrified as they ran, hands in the air, towards waiting police.
The stand-off ended when a loud bang was heard from the café and five people ran out. Shortly after, police swooped in, amid heavy gunfire, shouts and flashes. A bomb disposal robot also was sent into the building, but no explosives were found.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the two deceased hostages, the wounded and the other hostages.
“I commend the courage and professionalism of the New South Wales Police and other emergency services involved.”
During the siege, a lawyer who had previously defended Monis, Manny Conditsis, claimed the gunman was acting alone and that he was not a serious terrorist. He said: “It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous. His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness.”
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
Adam Houda, a well-known Sydney solicitor who had also represented Monis, described him as “mad as a cut snake”.
Anne Aly, head of the counter-terrorism research programme at Australia’s Curtin University, said: “This appears to be the actions of a lone actor, perhaps not very well prepared, perhaps not very well planned.”
Dubbed the “hate sheikh”, the self-styled Muslim cleric was born in Iran and sought political asylum in Australia in 1996.
Monis was yesterday on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal. He was also facing more than 40 sexual and indecent assault charges after being arrested in March.
It is claimed he attacked a woman in the western Sydney suburb of Wentworthville in August 2002. The complainant, who was 27 at the time, allegedly met Monis through an advert for “spiritual consultation” in a local newspaper. He was said to have posed as an expert in astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic.
News of his arrest prompted more alleged victims to come forward, and in October he was accused of an additional 40 charges. Monis reportedly denied the charges, posting online that they were part of a witch hunt against him.
He had previously been sentenced to 300 hours of community service for writing offensive letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and was banned in 2010 from sending similar “letters of condolence” to the families of British soldiers killed in the same conflict.
Monis described himself on a website as a Shia Muslim who had converted to Sunni Islam.
Yesterday, it was claimed one of his demands during the lengthy siege was to have a flag of Islamic State – the Sunni militant group which recently seized territory in Syria and Iraq – to be delivered to the café.
The siege began around 9:45am Australian time on Monday morning in Martin Place, a plaza in Sydney’s main financial and shopping district. At first onlookers thought a robbery was taking place but soon after hostages were seen holding their hands up at the café window.
Hundreds of police filled the city as streets were closed and offices evacuated. The plaza is also home to the state premier’s office, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of the nation’s largest banks. The state parliament house is a few blocks away, and the Sydney Opera House is nearby.
Two hostages were seen holding up a black flag with the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it. The shahada translates as “There is no god but God and Mohammed is his messenger.” It is considered the first of Islam’s five pillars of faith. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, featuring on the flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the shahada in their black flag.
A number of Australian Muslim groups condemned the hostage-taking in a joint statement, and said the flag’s inscription was a “testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals”.
Channel 10 news said it received a video in which a hostage had relayed the gunman’s demands. The station said police requested it not be broadcast.
The gunman could be seen pacing past the café’s windows, carrying what appeared to be a pump-action shotgun. He was unshaven and wore a white shirt and a black cap.
In a post online, 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’s government raised the country’s terrorism warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of IS. Counter-terrorist law enforcement teams later conducted dozens of raids and made several arrests in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. One man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an IS leader in Syria to behead a random person in downtown Sydney.
In September, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urged so-called “lone wolf” attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia.
TIMELINE (Sydney time)
Police are called to Lindt Chocolat cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place, a busy plaza in the heart of the city. Initial reports suggesting an armed robbery is in progress are soon ruled out.
Australian television stations broadcast images of hostages inside the cafe with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the window. Shortly afterwards, two hostages appear at the window holding a black flag with white Arabic script.
Armed police line up outside the shop. Nearby buildings are evacuated.
Prime minister Tony Abbott goes on national television and pledges that the police response will be thorough for what he calls “a deeply concerning incident”.
Three men escape from the cafe’s fire exit and run towards police. One is wearing a Lindt cafe apron and appears to be an employee.
Two women sprint from the same side door and run into the arms of police. Both are wearing Lindt aprons.
Abbott says the gunman has claimed “political motivation”, but makes no reference to any concerns of a terror plot.
Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn says police are conducting a “sensitive negotiation” that requires discretion. She declines to say if direct contact has been made with the gunman, or specify the number of hostages held or any operational tactics.
Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione says the priority of police is getting everyone out safely. He declines to speculate on the gunman’s motives or a possible terror link.
Lights inside the cafe are switched off. Police outside put on night goggles.
Police name alleged hostage-taker as Man Haron Monis, also known as Sheikh Haron. He is an Iranian-born cleric who was granted asylum in Australia.
Commandos storm the cafe shortly after a series of loud bangs are heard and more hostages flee. Several bursts of gunfire are heard, and people are seen being carried from the building, apparently injured.
New South Wales police say the siege is over.
Police confirm three dead: two hostages – a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman – and the hostage-taker.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS