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THE hostage crisis at Sydney’s Lindt cafe has ended dramatically with armed police storming the premises and a number of injured hostages being rushed to hospital.
Heavily armed Australian police stormed a central Sydney café where a self-proclaimed cleric was holding hostages at gunpoint, ending a siege lasting more than 16 hours that had shut down large parts of the city’s business district.
It wasn’t immediately clear if any of the hostages or the gunman were killed by two separate volleys of bullets, which followed loud explosions around 2:15 a.m. Tuesday and several people fleeing the Lindt Chocolate Café where the siege began Monday morning. Paramedics arrived at the cafe within moments of the standoff ending.
A spokesperson for the Royal North Shore Hospital confirmed it received three patients injured following the cafe siege, none of which is critical. A woman in her 40s was treated for a gunshot wound to her leg and is described as stable; a 39-year-old police officer was treated for a gunshot graze to the face and is also considered stable. A 30-year-old woman was brought to the hospital complaining of back pain.
In a sign that authorities remain concerned about the security of the site, bomb squad police entered the building with a robot in an attempt to detect possible explosives. Earlier in the siege, the gunman forced some of the hostages to film videos outlining his demands and to warn authorities that a number of bombs had been placed around Sydney. Police said earlier Monday that they were focused only on the area around the cafe.
The end to the standoff came around an hour after the gunman in the cafe was identified as Man Haron Monis, a Sydney man whose website rails against perceived oppression by the U.S. and allies including Australia against Muslims.On a website purportedly to be Mr. Haron’s, he is described as a Sydney-based Muslim cleric and activist unaffiliated with any organization or party. The website details a string of incidents involving Mr. Haron and Australian authorities.
Australian police had spent hours negotiating with Mr. Haron, trying to end the tense siege. Over the course of Monday, five hostages managed to escape from the cafe. At least six more fled the building just before the outbreak of gunfire and the end of the siege.
Martin Place is a pedestrian area that connects some of the city’s main shopping areas—and isn’t far from big attractions such as the Sydney Opera House and the main ferry terminal. The incident led to the closure of a number of streets and buildings before the Christmas holiday, when the area gets especially busy.
Afroz Ali, an imam based in the predominantly Muslim suburb of Bankstown in Western Sydney, described Mr. Haron as a dangerous man who had possibly snapped because of his repeated disagreements with Australian authorities.
Mr. Ali said Mr. Haron was of Iranian descent, but was seen as a maverick within Sydney’s Shia community. “He is not recognized by the Shia community at all—he has been operating pretty much underground,” said Mr. Ali, who runs a series of online courses for students seeking a deeper understanding of Islam and the Quran. He was speaking just before the siege ended.
Muslim leaders and antiterror experts said Mr. Haron was likely acting alone, and using global movements such as Islamic State as a cloak for his own grievances. Such attacks are worrying governments because they can be hard to track and prevent. In October, a man fatally shot a soldier at Canada’s National War Memorial before being killed inside the country’s parliament building, in a terror attack that shut down the capital city.
Throughout Monday night and into Tuesday, police continued to negotiate with Mr. Haron. Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn from the New South Wales police said negotiators were hoping “to bring about a peaceful resolution to this situation.”
In the meantime, four YouTube videos, quickly deleted by Google Inc., appeared online, showing a number of female hostages making various demands on behalf of the hostage taker in front of a black flag inscribed with the Shahadah, a profession of Muslim faith. The list of demands included for an Islamic State flag to be delivered to the cafe and for a live media interview to be arranged with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
It wasn’t clear what prompted the police to storm the building under a hail of gunfire. Experts had predicted a drawn-out negotiation process, with negotiators alert to any sign the assailant is willing to give himself up to authorities. Still, Adam Dolnik, a professor at the University of Wollongong who has helped train New South Wales police in hostage negotiations, said police wouldn’t hesitate to use force if there was a sign that the attacker might harm any of the hostages.
Australia has experienced sweeping terrorism raids recently, in addition to the police shooting of an 18-year-old Islamic State sympathizer in September. Muslim leaders fear the latest development risks igniting community tension, and may lead to acts of random retaliation. Around 70 men have had their passports confiscated in recent months due to suspicions they planned to leave the country to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, authorities say.