SYDNEY—Gunfire and explosions rocked Sydney early Tuesday morning after an armed jihadi took 17 people hostage at a busy café.
Two hostages died en route to the hospital, while police said they killed gunman Man Haron Monis.
Monis walked into the café on Monday and took everyone inside hostage. He used some of the captives as human shields and forced others to hold a black flag with white Arabic writing against the window.
The drama transfixed the normally calm Sydney, known for its laid-back vibe and relaxed population. As Monday turned to Tuesday morning, five hostages had escaped and the Central Business District had turned into a ghost town.
Monis had been convicted on charges related to offensive letters he sent to the families of Australian soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. He was out on bail as an alleged accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, as well as a string of 50 indecent and sexual-assault charges in connection to his time as a self-proclaimed spiritual leader.
Monis used a YouTube account to post a series of videos showing hostages reciting his demands, which included the delivery of the black flag of ISIS. He asked “to please broadcast on all media that this is an attack on Australia by the Islamic State,” and to speak to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (YouTube has since removed the videos from the account.)
The incident began during the morning rush hour, when Monis entered the Lindt chocolate and coffee shop at Martin Place, a major transportation hub that typically teems with professionals and tourists.
The majority of the CBD remained closed for the day, with a group of onlookers calmly crowded behind police tape just one block from the shop. Several buildings, including the iconic Sydney Opera House and the nearby U.S. consulate, were shut down earlier in the day as a precaution, while policemen spread out across the city.
“There’s a lot of information and misinformation being passed around so it’s really a bit concerning,” said onlooker Aldy King, who works nearby. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence though that they chose the coffee shop right next to Channel 7 and right above the train station.”
Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione asked residents to remain calm, amid fears of unrest. “Clearly reprisal attacks are something that should not happen. At this stage, we need to let everyone just settle down,” he said.
Steve Garth, who works in Circular Quay, was inside the Cartier jewelry store near the café when the siege began.
“I didn’t realize the magnitude of what was going on until I got back to my office. There really was no sense of fear or panic on the street,” he said. “Australians are just not programmed for these things and look at it in general as something going on overseas.”
Australia’s Muslim community joined the nation’s most senior Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, in condemning the siege. The grand mufti said he was “devastated” by the situation.
A Sydney television station near the café continued to show gripping images of hostages at the window, fists against the glass and a look of terror on their faces. At one point, Monis appeared to be holding a woman in front of him as he moved about the café, apparently using her as a human shield.
The flag was the most striking symbol of the drama. A black banner with white Arabic lettering that appears to be the Shahada, a central tenet of Islam that states: “There is no god but the God, Mohammed is the messenger of God.” The banner might perhaps be the flag of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), according to a tweet from The Sydney Morning Herald. The group is not known for espousing violence in the manner of al Qaeda or ISIS, but it does support the establishment of a caliphate uniting Muslims around the world.
Monis’s motive is still unknown.