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Sydney siege: Hostage crisis ends after 16 hrs, 2 Indians safe, reports say 2 dead


Sydney (Dec. 15, 2014): A long hostage drama in which a heavily-armed man of Iranian-origin held some 15 people hostage at a cafe in Sydney ended late ton with the police storming it, reportedly resulting in two deaths but two Indians were among the hostages who escaped safely.

Police fired stun grenades and shots as they stormed the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney's commercial district after 2:30 AM local time Tuesday (9 PM IST Monday) and later declared that the siege was over. However, they gave no details about the fate of the gunman, identified as 50-year-old Haron Monis, or of the hostages many of whom had escaped earlier on their own.

Australian TV networks reported that two persons -- gunman Monis and one of the captives -- died and three others were severely injured in the police operation. Police, however, did not confirm this. Two Indian nationals -- Vishwakant Ankit Reddy and Pushpendu Ghosh -- were among the hostages involved when Monis began his siege. However, Reddy, an Infosys employee in his mid-30s, and Ghosh, whose details were not known, escaped safely.

Reddy has been working in Australia for the past seven years and is a native of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. Both are undergoing medical check-ups, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in New Delhi. The gunman, a self-styled Muslim cleric, was described by his former lawyer as an isolated figure, who was acting alone.

Monis, who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1996, notoriously sent letters to the families of Australian soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan, accusing them of being murderers. In November last year, he was charged with being an accessory before and after the murder of his ex-wife, who was allegedly stabbed and set alight in her apartment complex. In March, he was charged with sexually and indecently assaulting a young woman in 2002. 

Five to six hostages, including the Indian techie, were seen running out of the eatery before the police raided the cafe. One weeping woman could be seen being carried out by the officers and at least two other people were wheeled out on stretchers.

"Sydney siege is over," New South Wales police tweeted minutes after loud bangs and gunshots were heard as police stormed the cafe in Martin Place here, close to the Indian Consulate which was closed as result of the siege. A police spokesman confirmed "the operation is over" but did not release further details.

The siege began after 9 AM local time as Monis, who was granted political asylum in Australia, took the people captive. Although the Indian cricket team is currently in Brisbane, some 700 kms away from Sydney, security around them was also significantly beefed up in the wake of the hostage crisis. Australian authorities conveyed to the Indian government that the team's security has been enhanced.

The gunman was reportedly armed with a shotgun and made a series of demands through Australian media like the delivery of an Islamic State flag and a conversation with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

During the siege, television footage showed people inside the cafe with their hands pressed against the window holding the black flag with Arabic script known as Shahadah, a prayer spoken in mosques daily. The flag displayed was not one specific to the Islamic State terror group, reports said. The government said there was no clear motivation but the flag appeared to be one commonly used by jihadist groups.

Soon after the hostage-taking incident, authorities sealed off surrounding streets, evacuated people from buildings, and suspended rail services in the capital of New South Wales (NSW). NSW Police activated Task Force Pioneer, which they use in terrorism related incidents, to handle the pre-Christmas incident. Reports said Monis was a self-proclaimed "self­styled sheikh" who operated out of premises on Station Street at Wentworthville.

It is alleged that Monis placed ads in local newspapers offering "spiritual consultation". He claimed to be an expert in astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic. Martin Place -- a public pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of the city, joining its parliamentary, legal and retail districts -- Sydney Opera House, State Library, US consulate and all court houses were evacuated. Just over five hours into the siege, five people, including a woman, were seen running out of the cafe. Two came out through the front door and one through the fire escape. The gunman was described as wearing a black vest.