Two killed as Australian police storm siege cafe

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At least two people were killed as heavily armed Australian police early Tuesday dramatically stormed a central Sydney cafe to end a day-long siege sparked when an Iranian-born extremist took several people hostage.

Security forces in SWAT-style gear intervened, unleashing a flurry of loud bangs and flashes in the eatery in the heart of Australia’s biggest city, after a number of the staff and customers managed to flee for their lives.

A photographer saw one body carried out. Australian media said that in addition, the gunman was shot dead by police. Sky News also reported four people were wounded, three of them critically.

Royal North Shore Hospital had admitted a woman in her 40s with a gunshot wound to her leg, a spokesperson said. She was in a serious but stable condition.

A bomb robot, which is used to detect and disarm explosives, was subsequently sent into the building as police declared the siege over and medics tended to hostages.

“Sydney siege is over. More details to follow,” police announced on Twitter.

The hostage­taker, who earlier had unfurled an Islamic flag, was named by ABC television and other media as a 49-year-old Iranian-­born “cleric” called Man Haron Monis.

They published a photo of him sporting a beard and a white turban and said he was on bail for a series of violent offences.

The pre­Christmas siege of the Lindt chocolate cafe began Monday morning and triggered a massive security lockdown in Sydney’s financial district as hundreds of police surrounded the site.

Monis’s former lawyer Manny Conditsis said the public could be assured that the siege was not the work of an organised terrorist group.

“This is a one-off random individual,” he told broadcaster ABC. “It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged­goods individual who’s done something outrageous.”

The police have not confirmed if the people who ran out of the cafe were released, ABC News reporter Lucy Carter tweeted.

Police, including heavily armed paramilitary officers, cordoned off several blocks around the cafe as negotiators tried to defuse one of the biggest security scares in Australia for decades. Snipers and a SWAT team could be seen taking up positions around the cafe and police helicopters flew overhead.

The New South Wales government on Monday set up an exclusion zone asking people who work in the Martin Place area of Sydney to work from home on Tuesday because of the hostage situation.

The Grand Mufti of Australia and the Australian National Imam’s Council (ANIC) have denounced the incident in a media statement.*

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has warned of militant plans to strike Australian targets, said there were indications the hostage situation at the cafe was politically motivated.

“This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australian people,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra, without providing any information on the siege.

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.

The cafe was directly opposite a commercial television studio and footage earlier showed several people inside the cafe standing with their hands pressed against the windows.

Pictures showed a black and white flag similar to those used by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria being held up by what appeared to be a staff member and another woman.

The incident forced the evacuation of nearby buildings in Sydney’s central business district and sent shockwaves around a country where many people have started to turn their attention to the approaching Christmas festive season following earlier security scares.

Sydney’s Channel 7 journalist Chris Reason, who has a direct line of sight of the cafe, has tweeted that the gunman seems agitated when five hostages escaped and that the cafe is completely dark.