SYDNEY — Australian authorities stormed the cafe where a self-styled Muslim cleric had been holding hostages early Tuesday, killing the gunman and ending a crisis that had paralyzed central Sydney for hours.
They moved in more than 16 hours after the siege began, only after hearing gunfire inside the Lindt Chocolate Cafe, New South Wales police Commissioner Andrew P. Scipione told reporters Tuesday.
Two of the 17 hostages initially held by the gunman died, according to Scipione. Four others were injured.
A police officer suffered a wound to the face from gunshot pellets. He was expected to recover, police said.
“This will not change the things that we hold dear in this country,” Scipione said.
The gunman had been identified earlier as Man Haron Monis by an official with direct knowledge of the situation. According to his social media posts, the gunman appears to have embraced a radical Sunni theology.
The raid ended the standoff but left many other questions unanswered: What did the gunman want? Why did he choose the cafe as his target? And was he acting alone?
“Understandably, there is a lot of speculation, but it will take time to clarify exactly what happened … and why,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters Tuesday.
“What we do know is that the perpetrator was well-known to state and Commonwealth authorities. He had a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability.”
Before the raid, Monis had demanded a flag and phone call with Tony Abbott, CNN affiliate Sky News Australia reported. He made the demands through hostages who contacted media organizations, Sky News reported.
Some hostages had also reportedly posted messages to social networking sites and the YouTube online video service. Police urged media early Tuesday not to show the videos.
Monis, also known as Sheikh Haron, pleaded guilty in 2013 to writing letters to relatives of Australian service members saying they were “Hitler’s soldiers,” according to Australian media reports.
He was believed to be acting alone, and he didn’t appear to be part of a broader plot, additional U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources said.
How the siege unfolded
Hundreds of police officers, including snipers, surrounded the cafe in Sydney’s central business district shortly after the gunman took over the building at 10 a.m. Monday (6 p.m. ET Sunday).
Chilling images from Australian media on Monday showed people, believed to be hostages, with their hands pressed against the cafe’s windows. They were holding up a black flag with Arabic writing on it reading, “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”
Five hostages sprinted out of the cafe toward heavily armed police officers several hours into the standoff, sending the gunman into an agitated tirade, according to an Australian reporter.
Chris Reason, a correspondent for CNN affiliate Seven Network, said the gunman became “extremely agitated” when he realized what had happened and “started screaming orders” at the remaining hostages.
Reason said he could see the gunman pacing past the cafe’s windows from his vantage point at the network’s nearby offices. He described the man as unshaven, wearing a white shirt and black cap and carrying a shotgun.
As night fell, lights went out in the cafe, Reason reported.
After a tense night, police could be seen early Tuesday throwing flash-bang grenades into the cafe in video aired by Seven Network.
Gunfire erupted amid the chaos. After a brief episode of violence, the crisis appeared to ease, with police officers assuming a more relaxed pose, according to Australian media.
A national security source in the United States said a team of Australian special forces troops and police had entered the Lindt Chocolate Cafe from two directions early Tuesday morning and killed the gunman.
Video captured medics working on some people and others being carried away in stretchers.
The hostage situation left Australians shaken.
“There is nothing more Australian than dropping in at the local cafe for a morning coffee, and it’s tragic beyond words that people going about their everyday business should have been caught up in such a horrific incident,” Abbott said.
He offered his condolences to the people caught in the incident and their loved ones.
“These events do demonstrate that even a country as free as open as generous and as safe as ours is vulnerable to acts of politically motivated violence,” the Prime Minister said. “But they also remind us that Australia, and Australians are resilient and we are ready to respond.”