Gunman leaves a tableau of death

Tasmania massacre: Witnesses describe rampage that left 34 dead, and describe mentally-ill suspect's love of firearms

A day after a gunman went on the rampage in the Tasmanian tourist resort of Port Arthur, the bodies of 20 people who were shot as they ate lunch remained in their seats in the restaurant where he began his attack.

"Some of the deceased are sitting there as if they were enjoying their meals at the time they were shot," Superintendent Jack Johnson said. "Their meals were still on the table." The bodies remained where they were until a coroner completed examining the murder sites.

The gunman was named as Martin Bryant, 28, from Hobart. He had no criminal record but a history of psychological problems. Yesterday he was being treated for burns, as police said the death-toll of 34 from the massacre, the world's worst involving a single gunman, could rise. The victims ranged in age from three to 72 years. Bryant was arrested after fleeing a burning building where he had held three hostages.

He left with his clothes ablaze after an outbreak of fire ended an 18- hour siege at a guesthouse. Detectives had tried to persuade him to surrender peacefully. Negotiations ended when the battery of his mobile phone went dead. He ran from the building and threw down two rifles after his clothes caught alight. Doctors said he was in a satisfactory condition in Royal Hobart Hospital, which was also caring for 18 of his victims.

He holed himself up in the Seascape Cottage on Sunday afternoon after running amok in a rampage which left bodies strewn around Port Arthur, one of Tasmania's most popular tourist attractions, the ruins of the penal colony to which Britain sent many prisoners from 1830 to 1877.

The victims included a three-year-old girl, her six-year-old sister and their mother. The six-year-old was cowering behind a tree when she was shot.

Police searching the guest house found the charred remains of two hostages, believed to be David and Sally Martin, who owned it, and were apparently friends of Bryant's father. A third hostage was still missing. "We don't know how the fire started," the Tasmanian Assistant Police Commissioner, Luppo Prins, said.

"The 28-year-old man is currently at the hospital under guard of police and it is proposed to talk to him as soon as possible," Mr Prins added. No charges have been laid yet.

As hundreds of Tasmanians flocked to a prayer and candle-light service at Hobart's Anglican cathedral last night, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, warned a culture of violence might be taking hold in Australia; the killings had "shaken the nation to the core".

The gunman's rampage began when he entered the Broad Arrow Cafe in Port Arthur, carrying a tennis bag from which he pulled a rifle and started shooting. He then moved on among the ruins of the old convict settlement, shooting dead four people before driving to the entrance of the ruins, where he killed the mother and her two young daughters. He shot dead all four occupants of a car which he then drove to a service station, where he killed a woman, his 32nd victim.

One witness, Milo Roganovic, from Melbourne, said. "He was following us and I thought to myself: 'That's it, we're dead'. I can't believe we're alive; I'm glad we are going (home) now."

At the service station the gunman kidnapped a man and shoved him in the boot of the car, then drove to the nearby Seascape guest house.

Yesterday, green cloth covered the blood-soaked roads where victims outside the cafe were killed. Four foreigners were among the dead - two Malaysians, a New Zealander and another from South Asia or South-East Asia. Four bodies were left where they fell at the scene, to allow the police to gather more evidence. Some relatives of the dead visited the area with police: a man who lost his wife and two children sat in a squad car sobbing, with his head in his hands.

Bloodied blankets marked the spots where victims were killed. Pools and trickles of blood on roads and pavements and shattered glass from shot- out car windows were testament to the indiscriminate brutality of the killings.

The greatest horror was in the Broad Arrow Cafe. The officer in charge of the scene, Superintendent Johnston, said the diner resembled a war zone. Many of the dead clearly did not have any warning of the hail of bullets. "Their meals were still on the table. Blood was everywhere." Some were found with forks raised to their mouths.

A woman from Melbourne who did not give her name said she took refuge under a table when the gunman fired. "I just lay there and all I could hear was the gun and screaming," she said. "The only thing that went through my head was, 'the next one's for me'." Afterwards, she said, "There were people just sitting there in their chairs where they'd been eating - dead ... There was a weird sort of calm, as if no one could believe what they were seeing."

Other survivors told of sheltering behind stone walls of the old prison buildings as the bullets flew. Some said they had initially thought the shots they heard were blanks, fired by costumed staff at the site. Others helped drive victims to safety. Some of the rescuers had been hit themselves.

Police have not yet interviewed Bryant nor established a motive for the attack. Local media said he suffered mental problems and mood swings after a car crash three years ago. People who described themselves as neighbours said he lived on a farm near Hobart and had threatened to shoot trespassers in the past and terrified them with his fondness for firearms. They also said he had bizarre habits and was known to sleep with a pig.

When he first moved in, two female neighbours asked if they could buy raspberries from him, as they had from the previous owner. "He told them to get off his property and not to come back or he would shoot them," said one former neighbour, who asked not to be named.

"He would go off - he would be a totally different person," the woman said. About three years ago Bryant's father drowned at a dam on the property, she recalled. The death was declared a suicide. But she said the son's reaction was strange.I don't think he was at all upset by his father's death."

As shock and outrage swept Australia, Mr Howard called a summit next week of federal and state government ministers to tighten the laws on gun control, which the Port Arthur massacre has exposed as being inadequate. "Let me make it clear that I will not retreat an inch from the national responsibilities I have on this issue," Mr Howard said. "Not an inch."

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