A daylong standoff in Sydney, Australia, ended after heavily armed police stormed the cafe where a man held at least a dozen people hostage, leaving two hostages and the gunman dead.
Heavy gunfire and loud bangs from stun grenades filled the air around 2 a.m. local time (1500 GMT on Monday) after security forces in tactical gear surrounded, then entered the storefront.
The police action brought to an end the more than 16-hour drama in Sydney. In addition to the three dead, four people were injured.
Moments before police stormed the cafe, at least six people believed to have been held captive managed to flee.
A 38-year-old woman and a 34-year-old man had died, New South Wales police said.
Four additional people have been injured. Of those, two women have “non-life-threatening injuries”; one woman has a gunshot wound to her shoulder; and a male police officer suffered moderate wounds to his face from gunshot pellets.
“In the past 24 hours this city has been shaken by a tragedy we never could have imagined,” NSW premier Mike Baird stated.
“Our first thoughts and prayers this morning are with the innocent victims of this horrendous, vicious attack,” he continued. “Everyone in New South Wales stands beside you. They stand beside you today, they stand beside you tomorrow, they stand beside you forever.”
Baird then paid tribute to the New South Wales police before addressing the public.
“We are a peaceful, harmonious society that is the envy of the world,” he added, noting that everyone. “Today, we must come together like never before. We are stronger together. We will get through this. We will get through this.”
Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione called the hostage a “critical incident.”
“We need to actually find out what’s happened here and what’s happened inside that cafe,” he said. “It’s not time to speculate or to develop theories. We are going to work through facts and we will advise you as soon as we can.”
The Commissioner empathized at length with the hostages, and said “we should reflect on that courage [. . .] our hearts go out to them.”
“To the people of Sydney: this was an isolated incident,” he continued. “This will not change our lives. This will not change the values we hold dear.”
“This was an act of an individual,” he confirmed.
He added that they have confirmed that there were 17 hostages – far less than initially reported.
Identity of gunman
Only minutes before the dramatic end, officials had identified the gunman as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee and a self-proclaimed Muslim cleric.
Monis started the siege on the Lindt chocolate cafe in the city’s central business district about 9:45 a.m. local time Monday.
Monis, who is facing charges including sexual assault and accessory to murder in separate cases, was found guilty in 2012 of sending offensive and threatening letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed overseas, according to media reports.
The Associated Press reported Monis last year was sentenced to 300 hours of community service in the letters case. He subsequently was charged with being an accessory to his ex-wife’s murder. He also was charged this year with sexually assaulting a woman in 2002 but has been out on bail pending further legal action.
“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., according to the AP.
Local media reported that Monis was 49 or 50 years old.
Monis, spotted through a window, was wearing a white shirt with a black vest and carrying a weapon.
“We’re possibly looking at a lone wolf who has sympathies to global jihad or someone with mental health issues in search of a cause. This is all about attention,” said Adam Dolnik, a University of Wollongong professor who has trained Sydney police in hostage negotiations, the Reuters news agency reported.
Media said that two people, including the gunman, had been killed. New South Wales police declined to comment on the reports, and it was not clear whether the fatalities occurred during the rescue operation itself.
Local media reported that Monis, who was known as Manteghi Bourjerdi before he changed his name, was 49 or 50 years old.
Early in the crisis, hostages were seen standing with their hands pushed up against the windows. A black flag with the Islamic creed known as the Shahada written in white could be seen through the glass.
New South Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione on Monday refused to call the situation a terrorist act. But Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the incident at the cafe may have been politically motivated.
Nearby buildings, including the U.S. Consulate in Sydney, had been evacuated. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the department is monitoring the hostage situation and the mission’s personnel are accounted for.
The New South Wales state parliament house is also just a few blocks away.
Although Monis was well known to authorities, security experts said preventing attacks by people acting alone could still be difficult.
“Today’s crisis throws into sharp relief the dangers of lone wolf terrorism,” said Cornell University law professor Jens David Ohlin, speaking in New York.
“There are two areas of concern. The first is ISIS (Islamic State) fighters with foreign passports who return to their home countries to commit acts of terrorism,” Ohlin said. “The second is ISIS sympathizers radicalized on the internet who take it upon themselves to commit terrorist attacks to fulfill their radical ideology.
“We are entering a new phase of terrorism that is far more dangerous, and more difficult to defeat, than al-Qaida ever was,” Ohlin said.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, earlier this year raised its domestic terror threat level from medium to high, mainly due to concerns about home-grown extremists.
About 70 Australians are thought to be fighting for militant groups in the Middle East.
In September, Australia’s largest counter terror raids took place in Sydney and Brisbane. One person was charged with terror offenses.
Tough anti-terror laws were passed by the Australian parliament in October in response to the threat of homegrown extremism