SYDNEY – New South Wales (NSW) police defended their decision to storm a Sydney cafe early Tuesday morning to end a 16-hour hostage crisis, saying the move was necessary to save lives after gunshots were heard from the premises.
Police stormed the Lindt cafe at around 2 am local time (11pm on Monday Singapore time) in a dramatic end to the siege that took 17 people hostage, with heavy gunfire and blasts from stun grenades echoing from the building.
Many flashes of light could be seen coming from inside the doorway of the cafe as the raid unfolded, local media said.
At least five people managed to flee from the cafe after gunshots were heard, according to reports.
Bomb squad members later moved in to search for explosives, but none were found.
The gunman, 50-year-old Iranian refugee Man Haron Monis, and two hostages were killed. The hostages were identified by the media as 34-year-old Tori Johnson, manager of Lindt Cafe, and 38-year-old Katrina Dawson, a barrister.
NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione would not comment on whether the two hostages were killed by Monis or caught in the crossfire, saying only that police would investigate.
Six others were wounded, two of them pregnant and were in stable condition, said the police. Another four hostages were believed to be unhurt in the operation.
Five other hostages fled the cafe on Monday afternoon and it was unclear if they were freed by the gunman or escaped.
Scipione unequivocally backed the decision to storm the cafe, which he said was made by a team of experts, Sydney Morning Herald reported.
"What we don't do is compete with those who have to make that call. They made the call because they believed at that time if they didn't enter, there would have been many more lives lost."
Scipione also would not address speculation that the hostages made a break for the exit after the gunman fell asleep, prompting him to wake up and open fire, according to Sydney Morning Herald.
"Now is not the time to second guess or speculate. This is a critical incident. We will go through this investigation," he said.
This file image shows Man Haron Monis, the gunman who took hostages inside Lindt Cafe in Sydney, Australia on Dec 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Gunman is extremist and mentally unsound, no links to terror groups
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 reports.
He was charged last year with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and was also facing more than 40 charges of sexual assault.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who did not identify the gunman, said he was well known to authorities and had a history of extremism and mental instability.
“He had a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability,'' said Abbott.
“As the siege unfolded... he sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult,” he said, referring to the militant group, Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
During the siege which started at 9.45am local time on Monday, some of the 17 hostages had been forced to display an Islamic flag at the window, igniting fears of a militant attack in the heart of the country’s biggest city.
Printed on the black and white flag was the Shahada, a testament to the faith of Muslims. The flag has been popular among Sunni Islamist militant groups such as the ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Several videos, apparently showing hostages inside the cafe making demands on behalf of Monis, were posted on social media during the siege.
He demanded to talk to PM Abbott and wanted the delivery of an ISIS flag. He also wanted media broadcast that Australia was under attack by ISIS.
The Australian government said there was no sign at this stage that the gunman was connected to known terrorist organisations.
“We are entering a new phase of terrorism that is far more dangerous and more difficult to defeat than Al-Qaeda ever was,”said Cornell University law professor Jens David Ohlin, speaking in New York.
But the NSW police commissioner urged calm among Australians.
“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,” said Scipione.
Sydney on alert
The cafe siege forced the evacuation of nearby buildings such as the State Library, Sydney Opera House, courts and the US Consulate, and sent shockwaves around a country where many people were turning their attention to the Christmas holiday after earlier security scares.
The security operation was the biggest in Sydney since a bombing at the Hilton Hotel killed two people in 1978.
On Tuesday morning, the area near the cafe remained cordoned off, with bystanders and passing office workers leaving flowers under police tape. Flags flew at half mast across the city.
Leaders from around the world had expressed their concern over the siege, including Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, which suffered an attack on its parliament by a suspected militant sympathiser in October.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against the ISIS, has been on high alert for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East or their supporters.
In September, anti-terrorism police said they had thwarted an imminent threat to behead a random member of the public and days later, a teenager in the city of Melbourne was shot dead after attacking two anti-terrorism officers with a knife.
The siege cafe is in Martin Place, a pedestrian strip popular with workers on a lunch break, which was revealed as a potential location for the thwarted beheading.
Muslim leaders in Australia urged calm on Monday. The Australian National Imams Council condemned “this criminal act unequivocally” in a joint statement with the Grand Mufti of Australia.
(With inputs from Reuters and AFP)