Sydney Lindt cafe siege: Three dead after Australian commandos storm building – how the events unfolded

Weeks after a suspected Islamist plot was foiled to behead civilians in Martin Place, a self-styled cleric seized control of a cafe in the same plaza. Kathy Marks in Sydney tells how events unfolded

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The Independent Online

Until 2am local time, Australian police – and everyone else – had hoped the hostage crisis inside Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney might end without bloodshed. Because until then, none of the luckless souls being held by Man Haron Monis, an Iranian self-styled cleric, had been harmed. Then gunshots rang out from inside the cafe. After 16 hours, the worst had come to pass.

After the police Swat teams had stormed in, and shot dead Haron, and rescued those who remained inside, the toll of the country’s worst terrorist incident for many decades was clear. Two hostages, a 34-year-old man and a woman aged 38, were dead, and four were injured. A police officer had been shot in the face. And Australia had lost what remained of its innocence.

 

According to reports from Australian media, the male hostage shot in the siege was Lindt cafe manager Tori Johnson, and the female was Katrina Dawson - a barrister and mother-of-three who worked in Sydney's central business district.

A sombre-faced Andrew Scipione, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, told an early morning press conference that police were forced to take action because “they believed that … [otherwise] there would have been many more lives lost”.

Standing beside him, Mike Baird, Premier of New South Wales, was visibly emotional. “In the past 24 hours this city has been shaken by a tragedy that none of us could have ever imagined,” he said.

Earlier, the night-time silence in Martin Place, a broad pedestrian plaza in the middle of Sydney, was shattered by the sudden volleys of gunfire and shouting.

As the shooting began, or perhaps just before, seven hostages ran out of the cafe, some with their arms raised. Five had managed to get out during the afternoon, their terrified faces signalling the nightmare unfolding inside. They left a dozen inside: Lindt staff, still wearing their smart brown aprons, and shoppers and office workers, who popped in for a takeaway coffee and never got out.

Warning: footage may be upsetting for some viewers  

According to some reports, the seven made a dash for it when Monis – also known as Sheikh Haron, but disowned by Sydney’s Muslim community leaders – fell asleep.

Photographs and TV footage showed one woman being carried out of the building and two others being helped out by police and paramedics.

Martin Place was thronged with people when, at about 9.45am yesterday, Monis walked into the cafe carrying a blue sports bag and produced a sawn-off shotgun.

Bruno – he only gave his first name – was a bit late for work. Trying to open Lindt’s plate-glass door, he found it locked.

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“Which is pretty weird, because it’s never locked, and there was one guy walking around with a hat and a beard,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The “guy” was Monis, an Islamic preacher and self-styled “spiritual healer” who was convicted last year of sending hate mail to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. More recently, he faced charges of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and of sexually assaulting numerous women.

A burly, bearded 50-year-old who was wearing a headband covered in Arabic script, he was on bail.


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Video:the moment police enter the building

The alarm had been raised, apparently by a woman who saw Monis outside Lindt and noticed the gun in his bag. Hundreds of police flooded into the city centre, cordoning off dozens of blocks and evacuating thousands of people. Snipers and the Swat teams took up positions in Martin Place. Public transport was thrown into chaos.

While a chocolate shop seems an unlikely setting for a terrorist siege, Monis could hardly have chosen a more high-profile location. Martin Place is home to the Reserve Bank of Australia and the national headquarters of two of Australia’s biggest banks. The New South Wales parliament is around the corner, as are the US consulate, the State Library and the NSW Supreme Court.

Channel Seven, one of the main TV networks, is based right opposite the Lindt Cafe. “We raced to the window and saw the shocking and chilling sight of people putting their hands up against the panes of glass,” recounted a Seven producer, Patrick Byrne.

Monis was making the hostages stand in front of the windows, with their arms raised. Then “gasps went through the newsroom”, said Mr Byrne, as a black flag covered in white Arabic script appeared. Held up by two hostages, it bore the words of the Shahada, a testament of Muslim faith. The flag has been co-opted by extremist Islamist groups in recent years. At the police cordon further down Martin Place, curious locals and tourists joined the media and camera crews. Some took selfies. Others excitedly phoned their friends. But most people simply gazed up at the brown umbrellas outside Lindt cafe.

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Security agencies have been warning for months of the risk posed by Australians returning home radicalised after fighting with Isis, which has styled itself Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria. (Monis was not among them however.) Tough new anti-terror laws have been passed.

In September, anti-terror raids across the country were said to have foiled a plot to seize a member of the public and behead them – in Martin Place, chillingly – then post the video online.

During the siege, the hours dragged slowly until about 4pm, when two men ran out of the cafe’s front door and a third man in a Lindt apron ran out of a side door. Then, about an hour later, two female cafe workers ran out, looking distraught – straight into the arms of the body-armoured officers.

Those left inside, according to a Channel Seven reporter, Chris Reason, were being “rotated” by Monis – forced “to stand against windows, sometimes two hours at a time”. Perhaps they were being used as human shields.

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Police rescuers bring one of the injured hostages to a waiting medical team (Reuters)

From his vantage-point, Mr Reason could “see the faces of hostages – pained, strained, eyes red and raw”, he tweeted. One female hostage, apparently trying to communicate with police, was filmed drawing her finger across her throat. Other witnesses said those inside looked “exhausted” and “absolutely terrified”.

“I can think of almost nothing more distressing, more terrifying, than to be caught up in such a situation,” said the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, echoing what many felt. A coalition of Australian Muslim groups expressed their “utter shock and horror”.

As darkness fell at about 8.30pm, it seemed inconceivable that the ordeal must last into the night. Inside the cafe, the lights were turned off. And then nothing – until 2am.

This morning the injured are in hospital and Sydney is shaking itself with disbelief. As one city cafe owner, Chris Dion, said: “We live in a beautiful country and this is happening right here in Sydney? Who could believe that’s happening here?”

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