By Glenda Kwek ,AFP
SYDNEY — A flurry of loud bangs erupted early Tuesday as a swarm of heavily armed police stormed a downtown Sydney cafe where a gunman had been holding an unknown number of people hostage for more than 16 hours. Police swooped into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe shortly after five or six hostages were seen running out of the building. 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. A police official said ��you wouldn’t be wrong�� in identifying the 50-year-old Monis as the gunman. Under department rules, officials do not identify themselves unless speaking at a formal news conference.
Iranian-born Gunman Known to Police for Serious Crimes 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. ��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,�� his former lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. ��His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness,�� Conditsis said. The lone gunman brandishing an Islamic flag kept terrified staff and customers captive into the early hours of Tuesday at a central Sydney cafe after five hostages managed to flee for their lives. The pre-Christmas siege of the Lindt chocolate cafe began Monday morning and triggered a continuing security lockdown in the heart of Australia’s biggest city as hundreds of armed police surrounded the site. The government said there was no clear motivation but the flag appeared to be one commonly used by jihadist groups bearing the shahada, or profession of faith in Arabic script �X ��There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his messenger.�� With police attempts to negotiate continuing through the night, videos emerged online of tired-looking captives repeating their hostage-taker’s demands. YouTube later took the footage offline. The man, reportedly armed with a shotgun, made a series of demands through Australian media but they were removed after police requested they not be made public. Australia has been on high alert after the government raised concerns that citizens who have fought alongside Sunni jihadists in Iraq and Syria could return home radicalized and carry out ��lone wolf�� attacks. Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a national security meeting to deal with the ��disturbing�� development. Some six hours into the siege, three men emerged from the popular cafe and ran for their lives, two from the front door and one from an emergency exit. Around an hour later two distraught women employees also fled. It was not clear if they escaped or were released. One was barista Elly Chen whose sister Nicole said on Facebook: ��Yessss I finally see you. I’m so glad you’re safe!!!!�� Among those left inside was an employee of Indian IT giant Infosys, the company said, as the leaders of India, Britain and Canada tweeted their concern. U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed on the crisis, the White House said.
Negotiators ��have had contact and continue to have contact�� with the armed man holding the hostages, New South Wales state deputy police commissioner Catherine Burn said. ��We do not have information to suggest that anyone is harmed at this stage,�� she added.