HUFFINGTON POST
12/15/2014 07:49 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Hostage Taking In Sydney Cafe Sparks Fears Of Islamist-Linked Attack

SYDNEY, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Australian security forces on Tuesday stormed the Sydney cafe where several hostages were being held at gunpoint, in what looked like the dramatic denouement to a standoff that had dragged on for more than 16 hours.

Heavy gunfire and loud bangs rang out shortly after 2 a.m. local time (1500 GMT on Monday), and moments earlier at least six people believed to have been held captive had managed to flee the scene.

Medics moved in and took away several injured people on stretchers, but it was not clear whether they included the gunman who had been named by a police source only minutes earlier.

He was identified as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee and self-styled sheik facing multiple charges of sexual assault.

He was also 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.

During the siege, hostages had been forced to display an Islamic flag, igniting fears of a jihadist attack.

"There's no operational reason for that name to be held back by us now," said a police source, who declined to be identified, when asked to confirm reports the hostage taker was Monis.

At least five hostages were released or escaped on Monday, with terrified cafe workers and customers running into the arms of paramilitary police.

A further 15 or so hostages were understood to have been holed up inside the cafe, said Chris Reason, a reporter at Channel Seven, whose office is opposite the cafe.

HIGH ALERT

Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, is on high alert for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.

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 militant groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.

The incident forced the evacuation of nearby buildings and sent shockwaves around a country where many people were turning their attention to the Christmas holiday following earlier security scares.

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.

"We're possibly looking at a lone wolf who has sympathies to global jihad or someone with mental health issues in search of a cause," said Adam Dolnik, a professor at the University of Wollongong who has trained Sydney police in hostage negotiations. "This is all about attention."

In the biggest security operation in Sydney since a bombing at the Hilton Hotel killed two people in 1978, major banks closed their offices in the central business district and people were told to avoid the area.

Muslim leaders urged calm. The Australian National Imams Council condemned "this criminal act unequivocally" in a joint statement with the Grand Mufti of Australia.

Concerns about an attack in Australia by Islamists have been growing for more than a year, with the security agency raising its national terrorism public alert to "high" in September.

(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell, Matt Siegel, Swati Pandey, Wayne Cole and Jason Reed; Writing and editing by Mike Collett-White)

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

12/15/2014 4:33 PM EST

PM: Perpetrator Was Well Known

12/15/2014 4:27 PM EST

Flags Will Fly Half-Mast

12/15/2014 4:07 PM EST

VIDEO: What We Know About The Gunman

12/15/2014 3:58 PM EST

The Dangers Of Lone Wolf Terrorism

Cornell University law professor Jens David Ohlin told Reuters that the events in Sydney underscore the dangers of "lone wolf terroris."

"There are two areas of concern. The first is ISIS (Islamic State) fighters with foreign passports who return to their home countries to commit acts of terrorism," he said.

"The second is ISIS sympathizers radicalized 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."

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

12/15/2014 3:54 PM EST

'How Was This Gunman Free On Bail?'

The Sydney Morning Herald takes a detailed look into the criminal background of hostage taker Man Haron Monis and the different charges raised against him in previous years.

A reporter at Tuesday morning's press conference posed the uncomfortable question about the Martin Place siege that will now surely become the subject of further investigation: "How was this gunman free on bail?".

Man Haron Monis, a self-styled sheikh shot dead by police in the early hours of Tuesday morning, was before the courts on two separate and serious matters: more than 40 sexual assault charges involving seven alleged victims; and as an accessory to the murder of his former partner.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

12/15/2014 2:14 PM EST

Prime Minister's Statement

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott released the following statement:

I want to give you a brief update on the siege in Sydney.

I have just chaired a meeting of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, which was briefed by Premier Baird and Andrew Scipione, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, on the unfolding situation.

This is a very disturbing incident.

It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.

Nevertheless, I can say that New South Wales Police and other agencies have responded to this incident with great professionalism.

Throughout the day, there has been nothing but complete and total cooperation between different Governments and different agencies.

You can be proud of the way your police and security bodies have responded to the events of this day.

I think I can also commend the people of Sydney for the calmness with which they have reacted to this disturbing incident.

We are a free, open and generous people and today we have responded to this in character.

Obviously, images have been beamed around our country and around the world.

I have received messages of support from a number of international leaders and I thank them for their encouragement on this difficult day.

Yes, it has been a difficult day. Yes, it is a day which has tested us, but, so far, like Australians in all sorts of situations, we have risen to the challenge.

12/15/2014 1:57 PM EST

No Explosives Found In Sydney Cafe

12/15/2014 1:54 PM EST

Police: 17 Hostages Involved In Siege

The police commissioner for New South Wales said on Tuesday morning that 17 hostages were involved in the Sydney siege.

Andrew Scipione explained that police decided to enter the cafe where the hostage taker was holed up early on Tuesday after shots were heard inside.

Two hostages were killed during the crisis, as well as the hostage taker, Man Haron Monis.

-- Eline Gordts

12/15/2014 1:47 PM EST

Police Statement

12/15/2014 1:39 PM EST

Police: 2 Hostages Have Been Killed

Police have confirmed that two hostages have been killed in the siege in Sydney.

More from The Guardian:

Police have confirmed three people are dead. Police said the 50-year-old man who took the hostages died at hospital after a confrontation between himself and police this morning where shots were fired.

A 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman, who were among the hostages, were shot and pronounced dead at hospital. Two women were taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Another woman was taken to hospital with a gunshot wound to her shoulder.

A male police officer suffered non-life threatening wounds to his face from gunshot pellets.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

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