A tense, 16-hour Australian hostage standoff ended with gunfire when heavily armed police stormed a cafe in the heart of Sydney’s financial center. Two hostages and the gunman were killed, authorities said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the dead gunman, a self-styled Islamic cleric, “was well known to state and commonwealth authorities” and had “a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability.”
“These events do demonstrate that even a country as free, as open, as generous and as safe as ours is vulnerable to acts of politically motivated violence,” Abbott said Tuesday morning local time in Canberra, the Australian capital.
New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said four of 17 hostages and one police officer were injured.
“This was an isolated incident,” he said. “This should never destroy or change the way of our life.”
One of two hostages killed was Katrina Dawson, 38, a mother of three young children and a lawyer, or barrister as they are called in Australia. Officials said she died of a heart attack en route to a hospital. She had been having coffee with a colleague in the cafe when the gunman took hostages.
The other killed hostage was identified by Sky News as the manager of the Lindt Cafe, Tori Johnson, 34.
“We are so proud of our beautiful boy Tori, gone from this earth but forever in our memories as the most amazing life partner, son and brother we could ever wish for,” his family said in a statement. “We’d like to thank not only our friends and loved ones for their support, but the people of Sydney, Australia and those around the world for reaching out with their thoughts and prayers.”
A close friend of Johnson, Deborah Thomas, told USA TODAY that she learned of his death from Johnson’s father shortly after gunfire ended the siege. She said he died trying to overcome the gunman and called him “a kind, beautiful, gentle man.”
“My understanding is that in the middle of the night, when the gunman was dozing, Tori went for the gun,” Thomas said. “I don’t know exactly what happened — if it went off or the gunman shot him. I do know they tried to revive him.”
“From a family and friend’s perspective, we take comfort knowing that Tori is hailed as one of the heroes, rather than as a victim,” Thomas said.
Sydney Mayor Clover Moore told CNN that she understood the gunman shot one of the victims and “that was the catalyst for the police going in.”
Officials said three of the hostage survivors were in stable condition in local hospitals. They included a woman, 75, who had a gunshot wound to the shoulder; a woman, 52, with a gunshot wound to the foot; and a woman, 43, who was shot in the leg. A 39-year-old man was treated and discharged for a facial injury due to gunshots.
After hours of little movement, live TV images showed about six hostages running from the Lindt Chocolat Cafe. Police swarmed the building to the pops of gunfire and smoke grenades. Moments later, one weeping woman was helped out by the officers and at least two other people were wheeled out on stretchers.
Scipione said police moved in when they heard gunshots from the cafe.
“Incidents unfolding inside the premises led them to believe that now was the time to deploy,” he said. A 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman were killed in the firefight, Scipione said.
The gunman was identified as Man Haron Monis, 50, an Iranian-born, self-proclaimed Muslim cleric with a lengthy criminal record who had been free on bail.
“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 the state news agency Australian Broadcasting Corp. “His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness.”
The gunman forced several hostages to make videotapes, which he emailed to Australian media organisations that withheld them from publication at the request of police until the siege was over.
In one of the videoes, surviving hostage Marcia Mikhael, 42, from the Sydney suburb of Glenwood, stood in front of a propaganda flag held aloft by other hostages and repeated Monis’s demands.
“One is for him to get an IS (Islamic State) flag and he will release one hostage,” Mikhael said. “And the second one is for the media to inform the other brothers not to explode the other two bombs which are also in the city; there are four bombs all together here.”
“And the third request is for [Prime Minister] Tony Abbott to contact the brother by a live web, somehow, and he will release five hostages…. We don’t understand why his demands haven’t been met yet. They are not unreasonable. He is only asking for a flag and a phone call, and that’s it.”
ABC reporter Siobhan Heanue said she heard a volley of gunfire and loud explosions followed by screams, then more explosions.
“The sound ricocheted throughout the tall buildings around the area… and hostages started pouring out of the building,” she said. “Some running, some able to walk, some with their hands up, and some being carried by ambulance staff.”
It was not clear how many people were injured. ABC reported that at least three people were seriously hurt.
Earlier, the lone gunman had issued demands and claimed to have bombs scattered around the city, multiple media outlets reported. The gunman also had released videos, through some hostages, stating that he wanted an Islamic State flag and a phone call from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Hundreds of heavily armed police officers, many in sniper positions, had taken control of the streets around the cafe in the area of Martin Place downtown.
Five hostages were able to flee to safety in the first several hours of the standoff. An undisclosed number of hostages remained in the cafe until the fiery resolution, police said.
“We are doing all we can to set you free,” Scipione had said at a news conference hours after the crisis began. The incident began around 9:45 a.m Monday local time. Sydney is 16 hours ahead of New York.
Australian news media footage had showed people in the cafe, apparently hostages holding up a black flag with Arabic writing on it reading, “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”
An association of dozens of Australian Muslim groups issued a statement condemning the attack.
“We reject any attempt to take the innocent life of any human being, or to still fear or terror into their hearts,” the statement said. “We remind everyone that the Arabic inscription on the black flag is not representative of a political statement, but reaffirms a testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals that represent no one but themselves.”
Three people ran out of the cafe six hours into the crisis. About an hour later, two women wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo fled the cafe into the arms of heavily armed police officers.
Kathryn Chee, who works at the cafe, told ABC she had planned to arrive at work early when her mother told her the news of the incident.
She said she saw pictures on TV of hostages with their hands against the windows.
“Straight away, there were three people that I knew … my heart just sank,” she said. ‘It’s just a little cafe, we have regular customers, people we know their orders … we’re already making their order before they get to the counter.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the gunman forced hostages to call multiple news media outlets to outline his demands, and that the hostages also posted his demands on their social media accounts.
The standoff gripped downtown Sydney, shutting down government offices, public transit and schools as it dragged through the day. The normally busy and crowded business district of the city was on virtual lockdown.
Australia raised its terror warning level in September in response to a domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group. At the time, one man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an Islamic State leader in Syria to behead a random person in downtown Sydney.
Meanwhile in Belgium on Monday, police detained three men after reports of a hostage taking in an apartment building in the western city of Ghent. No one was injured in the incident.
Federal police spokeswoman Annemie Serlippens excluded any political or terror motive. Police, who blocked off a wide perimeter around the area, said it was still unclear whether they had taken any hostages.