Commandos stormed a Sydney cafe early on Tuesday morning and freed hostages being held there at gunpoint, ending a 16-hour siege in which three people including the attacker were killed.
Police 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 soldiers killed in Afghanistan and who was charged last year with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.
During the siege at the Lindt cafe in Sydney’s central business district, hostages had been forced to display an Islamic flag, igniting fears of a jihadist attack.
Heavy gunfire and blasts from stun grenades filled the air shortly after 2 a.m. local time (11 p.m. Monday in Hong Kong).
Moments earlier, at least six people believed to have been held captive managed to flee after gunshots were heard coming from the cafe, and police said they made their move in response.
“They made the call because they believed at that time if they didn’t enter there would have been many more lives lost,” said Andrew Scipione, police commissioner for the state of New South Wales.
An investigation would determine whether hostages were killed by the gunman or died in cross-fire, Scipione told reporters just before dawn.
Police said a 50-year-old man, believed to be the attacker, was killed. A man aged 34 and a 38-year-old woman were also dead, police said. Four other hostages were wounded.
Local media have identified the two fatalities other than the gunman as Lindt cafe manager Tori Johnson and lawyer Katrina Dawson.
So far 17 hostages have been accounted for, including at least five others who were released or escaped on Monday.
“To the people of Sydney, this was an isolated incident … Do not let this sort of incident bring about any loss of confidence of working or visiting our city. It was the act of an individual,” Scipione was quoted as saying.
Bomb squad members moved in to search for explosives, but none were found. Television pictures showed the attacker appeared to have been armed with a sawn-off shotgun.
Monis was found guilty in 2012 of sending offensive and threatening letters to families of eight Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, as a protest against Australia’s involvement in the conflict, according to local media reports.
He was also facing more than 40 charges of sexual assault.
Although the hostage taker was known to the authorities, security experts said preventing attacks by people acting alone could be difficult.
The Sydney siege underscores the dangers of “lone wolf terrorism”, Cornell University law professor Jens David Ohlin was quoted as saying in New York.
“The second is ISIS sympathizers radicalised 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 Qaeda ever was.”
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, has been on high alert for attacks by homegrown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East or their supporters.
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