SYDNEY (Reuters) – Heavily armed Australian police stormed a Sydney cafe early this morning and freed terrified hostages being held there at gunpoint, in a dramatic end to a 16-hour siege in which two captives and the attacker were killed.
Police would investigate whether the two hostages were killed by the gunman or died in the cross-fire, said Andrew Scipione, police commissioner for the state of New South Wales.
Authorities have not publicly identified the gunman but a police source named him as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee and self-styled sheikh known for sending hate mail to the families of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan. He was charged last year with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife but had been free on bail.
Several videos apparently showing hostages inside the Lindt cafe in Sydney’s central business district making demands on behalf of Monis were posted on social media during the siege. The gunman, whom the frightened hostages referred to as “brother”, demanded to talk to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the delivery of an Islamic State flag, and that media broadcast that Australia was under attack by Islamic State.
Abbott said the gunman was well known to authorities and had a history of extremism and mental instability. Around 2 am local time (1500 GMT on Monday), at least six people believed to have been held captive in the cafe managed to flee after gunshots were heard coming from inside.
Police then moved in, with heavy gunfire and blasts from stun grenades echoing from the building.
“They made the call because they believed at that time if they didn’t enter there would have been many more lives lost,” Scipione told reporters just before dawn.
Police said a 50-year-old man, believed to be the attacker, was killed. Television pictures showed he appeared to have been armed with a sawn-off shotgun.
A man aged 34 and a 38-year-old woman were also killed, police said. The man was the cafe manager and the woman was a mother and lawyer, Sydney media reported. Six were wounded, including a policeman hit in the face with shotgun pellets.