A hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia, has come to a dramatic and tragic end, 16 hours after it first began.
Three people, including the lone gunman, are dead after heavily armed police stormed a café where the siege began on Monday morning.
Authorities say all 17 hostages have been accounted for.
New South Wales police say two men, aged 34 and 50, and a 38-year-old woman died during the storming of the café just after 2 am local time.
There was an exchange of gunfire and stun grenades were thrown into the Lindt chocolate shop and café before the SWAT teams went in.
The New South Wales Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, spoke about the decision to storm the café.
“That’s a decision that was made by the teams responsible; these are the experts,” he said. “What we don’t do is compete with those that have to make that call. They made the call because they believed at that time if they didn’t enter there would’ve been many more lives lost.
He also said: “This was an isolated incident; it is an isolated incident. Do not let this sort of incident bring about any loss of confidence about working or visiting in our city.”
Several injured people were seen being evacuated from the scene by ambulance. Four people are reported to be in a serious condition.
TV images showed medics attempting to resuscitate at least two people on the pavement in front of the café.
Hostages were seen running from the building just before the armed police moved in.
On Monday morning police surrounded the café in Martin Place, close to the city’s central business district.
The incident started when witnesses say they saw a man with a bag walk into the shop and café.
The company said about 10 employees and around 30 customers were in the café at the time, but police said it was less than that.
Nearby offices and other buildings were cleared by officers as soon as the situation became apparent.
About six hours after the start of the siege three staff were seen running from the premises, with two customers following around an hour later. It is not clear if they escaped or they were released.
At one point a black flag with Arabic script on it was held up to a window.
The gunman was identified as Man Horan Monis, an Iranian refugee and self-proclaimed cleric and sheikh. He was known for protests against Australia’s involvement alongside the US in foreign conflicts. He also had a history of violent offending and was on remand on a charge of being an accessory to the murder of his former wife.
NSW deputy police commissioner, Catherine Burn, said before the raid: “I won’t clarify any operation tactics at the moment. It is really important to remember that this is ongoing, that we still have people who are being held. We still have a person that we are dealing with. So as soon as we are able to provide that information.”
As the siege heads into the night, NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione refused to comment on the light’s being turned off in the cafe, citing operational reasons. He did confirm that an exclusion zone would continue around Martin Place tomorrow. He also confirmed that the operation is centred on a single location, after Sydney Opera house was evacuated earlier on in the day. He also called for calm saying that there should not be reprisals.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has warned of militant plans to attack Australian targets, convened a meeting of the cabinet’s national security committee for a briefing. In a statement earlier he said the incident was “politically motivated”.
Australia, which is backing the United States and its action against Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq, is on high alert for attacks by radicalised Muslims or by home-grown fighters returning from the conflict.
Mosques, synagogues and churches across Australia had earlier invited the public to pray for a peaceful resolution to the siege.
A coalition of Muslim organisations condemned the hostage-taking.
A hashtag has arisen showing support for Australian Muslims #illridewithyou has been mentioned more than 40,000 times in the past two hours. 702 ABC Sydney have received calls from Muslim listeners saying they were afraid to ride on public transport.
I wasn't planning on going out tomorrow but if you need a bus/train/walking/whatever buddy, let me know. #illridewithyou— Brianne Worth (@ruckuslike) December 15, 2014