Sydney, Dec 15: A swarm of heavily armed police stormed the Lindt chocolate cafe ending the siege for more than 16 hours. The gunman, who had been holding an unknown number of people hostage, has reportedly been shot dead.
After a flurry of loud bangs, police swooped into the Cafe shortly after five or six hostages were seen running from the building.
According to reports, after the police moved in, one weeping woman was helped out by the officers and at least two other people were wheeled out on stretchers.
The dramatic scene unfolded shortly after the gunman was identified by local media as Iranian-born Man Haron Monis, who is facing charges including sexual assault and accessory to murder in separate cases.
Monis has long been on officials’ radar. Last year, he was sentenced to 300 hours of community service for writing offensive letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. He was later charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.
Earlier this year, he was charged with the sexual assault of a woman in 2002. He has been out on bail on the charges.
Throughout the day, several people were seen with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the window of the cafe, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.
The Shahada translates as “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.” It is considered the first of Islam’s five pillars of faith, and is similar to the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the Shahada in their own black flag.
A number of Australian Muslim groups condemned the hostage-taking in a joint statement and said the flag’s inscription was a “testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals.”
In a show of solidarity, many Australians offered on Twitter to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash from the cafe siege. The hashtag (hash)IllRideWithYou was used more than 90,000 times by late Monday evening.
Hundreds of police blanketed the city as streets were closed and offices evacuated. The public was told to stay away from Martin Place, site of the state premier’s office, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of the nation’s largest banks. The state parliament house is a few blocks away, and the landmark Sydney Opera House also is nearby.
“This is a very disturbing incident,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.”
(With Agency Inputs)