By Andrea Booth and Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
SYDNEY — Police stormed a cafe in downtown Sydney, bringing a violent end to a 16-hour siege in which a gunman held more than a dozen people hostage.
A police spokesman told reporters early Tuesday local time that “the operation is over,” but would not release any further details about the fate of the gunman – widely reported to be a self-styled Muslim cleric — or any of those who were inside.
However, Australian television reported that two people, including the gunman, were dead and that three others were seriously injured. Police did not immediately confirm the reports.
Television caught the images of the police attack, which began with a flurry of loud bangs after which police could be seen swooping into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe. Local media reported that the decision to storm the darkened cafe was unplanned and was taken after the gunman opened fire.
Explosions could be heard shortly after six hostages emerged from the cafe, one of them being assisted by anti-terrorism forces. More were removed on gurneys a short time later as police stormed the building.
After the police moved in, one weeping woman was helped out by officers and at least two other people were wheeled out on stretchers.
It was not immediately clear whether the gunman in the siege had any links to international militant groups or was acting alone.
Australian media reported that the gunman is believed to be Man Haron Monis, an Iranian-born radical who claims to be a Muslim sheik and has been charged in a series of violent crimes.
His former lawyer described him as disturbed, and said he was not acting in concert with any terrorist organization.
“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,” the lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness,” Conditsis said.
Haron arrived in Australia in 1996 as a refugee, and if he is implicated in the crime, it may inflame local sentiment against refugees arriving by boat, a hot-button issue in Australia.
Haron had been facing charges as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, and was also charged earlier this year with dozens of counts of sexual assault, allegedly carried out when he claimed to be a spiritual healer and was treating women. Haron was due in court in February to answer the charges.
Haron gained notoriety in Australia in recent years over a hate-mail campaign targeting the families of soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan, comparing their bodies to pigs.
He was charged and convicted for using the postal service to harass people. He appealed that conviction, claiming he was a peace activist whose rights to freedom of speech had been infringed.
Haron has repeatedly attacked Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, on social media, calling them racists and terrorists. He claimed he was under constant attack by the authorities and had been investigated by the national intelligence agency.
He responded bitterly to recent comments by Abbott that migrants who moved to Australia should be willing to join “Team Australia.”
“Shame on Team Australia and shame on those racist and terrorist Australians who support the governments of America and its allies including Australia,” Haron said on Facebook, before his page was taken down late Monday. He described his Facebook page as “Team Islam against Australian oppression and terrorism.”
Haron also posted a letter on his Facebook page attacking Abbott over Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, saying this had made the world — and Australia — more dangerous.
His website bears a photograph of a dead woman and three children, all bleeding, with the words: “This is an evidence for the terrorism of America and its allies including Australia. This result of their air strikes.”
Haron accused the “barbaric” Australians of torture and last week praised the Islamic State over its actions in Iraq and Syria.
The drama in Sydney began around 9:45 a.m. Monday in Martin Place, a plaza in the capital’s financial and shopping district. The area was packed with holiday shoppers as well as workers from the nearby buildings taking a midmorning break.
The cafe is not far from courts, the parliament of New South Wales state, the U.S. Consulate and the Reserve Bank of Australia. Once the siege began, businesses and courts in the neighborhood were evacuated and closed for the day. The iconic Sydney Opera House, less than a mile away, also was evacuated.
Aside from the chop-chop sound of helicopters overhead, there was an eerie quiet, pierced with the sound of sirens. Surrounding streets were filled with police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
Though police have refused to say how many captives were being held inside the cafe, a local news station with a view through the window reported that it appeared to be as many as 15.
New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters earlier that police negotiators were working to defuse the crisis, though he would not say whether they were talking to the gunman directly or through intermediaries.
As the siege passed its seventh hour Monday, five hostages went free — three after 4 p.m. local time, and two more about 5 p.m. As with the later hostages who left, it was unclear whether they escaped or were released.
One of those freed then was treated at a hospital, but that care was for a preexisting condition rather than for any injuries sustained during the hostage-taking, Scipione said.
As night fell Monday, one of the women still being held hostage turned the cafe lights off, local media reported.
Abbott confirmed late Monday that the gunman appeared to have “a political motivation,” and local media reported that the gunman was trying to obtain an Islamic State flag in exchange for some of the hostages.
Two people inside the cafe had been seen pressed up against the window holding a black flag with Arabic writing early in the siege, which began about 9:45 a.m. The flag appeared to say: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
As the day wore on, Australia’s Network Ten Eyewitness News reported that two female hostages in the cafe had phoned the station and spoken of two bombs planted in the cafe and two other bombs elsewhere in downtown Sydney. Police declined to confirm that.
“I can’t speculate on what may or may not be, and that would be very unhelpful at the moment,” Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said at an evening news conference. “At the moment we know that the person we are dealing with is armed.”
The women were “hysterical” and believed that their lives were in immediate danger, according to the network.
The hostages also conveyed the demands of the gunman, who called himself “The Brother,” according to the network: to speak to Abbott and to have an Islamic State flag delivered to the cafe. In return for the flag, one hostage would be freed, they reportedly said.
The network said on Twitter that police listened in to the network’s talks with the hostages, and “advised every step of the way.”
Burn declined to call the incident a terrorist act. “We still don’t know what the motivation might be,” she said, adding that authorities “want to resolve this peacefully.”
But authorities in New South Wales did call up the local counter-terrorism unit, Task Force Pioneer.
“This is really about setting up command and control,” Burn said.
The attack came the same day police filed terror charges against two men, one accused of terror financing. Both had been arrested in Australia’s biggest series of terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane in September; one had been freed but was rearrested Monday. Police said there was no connection between the morning arrests and the siege, Fairfax media reported.
In the September raids, Australian authorities arrested a Sydney man who they said planned to seize a random passerby in Martin Place — the same location where Monday’s attack took place — behead the victim and drape the body in the Islamic State flag. At the time, Abbott told Australians that the beheading was planned within days of the raid.
Most hostages likely were detained when they stopped for morning coffee.
One waiter at the cafe told local media that he had arrived at work minutes after the siege began to find the door locked.
“I saw a guy who looked like he was overseeing everything,” the waiter, who gave his name only as Bruno, told Fairfax Media. “He was standing up while everyone else was sitting down. That’s when the police came and everyone started putting their hands against the window. There was a whole lot of people in there.”
Hours later, Bruno told The Times, “I would rather be in there with them than being out here and not knowing, you know.”
A cafe customer who declined to give her name told reporters: “I literally walked up to the Lindt cafe to get my coffee, but for some reason I went somewhere else. It’s hard to believe that this is happening in our own backyard.”
If the siege is confirmed to be the result of a terror attack, it would be the first major terrorist incident on Australian soil since a bomb was planted in a rubbish bin outside Sydney’s Hilton Hotel, where various world leaders were staying, in 1978, killing two garbage men. The terror attacks that have killed more Australians than any other were the 2002 twin Bali bombings by violent Islamist militants, which killed 202 people including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 27 Britons, seven Americans, six Swedes and three Danes.
Dozens of young Australians are reported to have left the country this past year to join the Islamic State and other terror groups, while authorities have canceled the passports of many other suspects.
Late Monday, a group describing itself as “Asawirtimedia” said on Twitter: “Who started the war? Do not weep now!” The tweet attached a photograph of the Australian flag and comments from Abbott as he announced that Australia had joined a coalition of forces against the Islamic State and was launching airstrikes in Iraq. The tweet highlighted Abbott’s quote, “IS has effectively declared war on the world.”
In October, Australia’s government deployed six fighter jets to carry out strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq.
There was no way to confirm whether the “Asawirtimedia” group had any relationship with the gunman in the cafe, however.
(Booth, a special correspondent, reported from Sydney and Dixon from Kenya. Staff writers Michael Muskal and Lauren Raab in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)
This story has been updated.
AFP Photo/William West