Heavily armed Australian police stormed a Sydney cafe early Tuesday morning and freed a number of hostages being held there at gunpoint, in a dramatic end to a 16-hour siege in which three people including the terrorist 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, 10.00 a.m. ET on Monday.
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 terrorist 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.
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 jihadist sympathizer in October.
A U.S. security official said the U.S. government was being advised by Australia that there was no sign at this stage that the gunman was connected to known terrorist organizations.
Although the hostage-taker was known to the authorities, security experts said preventing attacks by people acting alone could be difficult.
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 home-grown terrorists returning from fighting in the Middle East or their supporters.
News footage showed hostages holding up a black and white flag displaying the Shahada, a testament to the faith of Muslims. The flag has been popular among Sunni Islamist terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.
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.