Sydney siege: Hostage crisis ends as police storm cafe, 2 Indians safe

Two people were killed as police on Monday night stormed a Sydney cafe where a gunman, Sheik Haron Monis, was holding people hostage.Two Indians who were among the hostages are believed to be safe

Sydney: A 17-hour-long hostage drama in which a heavily-armed man of Iranian-origin held some 15 people hostage at a cafe ended late on Monday night 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.

Two Indian nationals -- Vishwakant Ankit Reddy and Pushpendu Ghosh -- were among the hostages involved when Sheik Haron 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.

Indian techie safeHostages, including an Indian techie (right) run out of a cafe in the central business district of Sydney on Monday. Pic/AFP

Loud bangs erupted as police stormed the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in downtown Sydney shortly after five to six hostages, including the Indian, were seen running out of the eatery.

Vishwakant's friend and colleague Chakravarthi told a TV channel from Sydney on Monday night that he could identify him in the TV footage of the hostages emerging safely from the cafe.

An employee of software giant Infosys, Vishwakant hails from Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.

The company had informed his family about the incident.

Sydney siege


Two men, who ran out of the Sydney cafe, take cover behind a policeman  during the hostage siege in the central business district of Sydney on December 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO

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. It is still not known whether they were freed or escaped.

The siege began after 9 AM local time and was continuing well past midnight with Australian media identifying the gunman as Haron Monis, who was granted political asylum in Australia.

The 50-year-old was described by his former lawyer as an isolated figure, who was acting alone.

The gunman, who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1996, achieved notoriety after he 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.

Monis was born Manteghi Bourjerdi and fled from Iran to Australia in 1996 where he changed his name to Man Haron Monis and assuming the title of Sheik Haron.

TV clips showed him as a bearded man with a white headgear who had been previously charged with sexually attacking seven women and trying to kill his former wife.

An Indian employee of Infosys was among about 30 people held hostage on Monday by Monis who stormed a cafe in Sydney's bustling business district -- in the first terrorist attack on Australian soil.

The siege triggered a security alert in Australia and led to evacuation of key buildings, including the Indian Consulate.

The incident happened at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place, the heart of Sydney's business district.

Authorities sealed off surrounding streets, evacuated people from buildings, and suspended rail services following the siege in the capital of New South Wales (NSW). The police also evacuated the Sydney Opera House and shut down traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

NSW Police have activated Task Force Pioneer, which they use in terrorism related incidents, to handle the pre-Christmas incident.

Martin Place -- a public pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of Australia's biggest city, joining its parliamentary, legal and retail districts -- Sydney Opera House, State Library, US consulate and all court houses here have been evacuated.

Andrew Scipione, the commissioner of the New South Wales police, said at a news briefing that an unknown number of hostages were being held in the cafe by at least one gunman.

Bengaluru-headquartered Infosys said one of its employees is among the hostages at the cafe.

"We can confirm that one Infosys employee is among the hostages at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney," the company said in a statement without naming the person.

"We are also in the process of confirming the whereabouts of all our other employees in the city. We are in constant touch with the local authorities and Indian Consulate in Sydney for updates on the situation on ground," Infosys said.

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. It is still not known whether they were freed or escaped.

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, reports said.

The government said there was no clear motivation but the flag appeared to be one commonly used by jihadist groups.

"There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his messenger" was written on the black flag.

The gunman is being described as being in his forties, wearing a black vest. Police said they are in contact with the gunman.

"We will continue this investigation, we will get to the bottom of it and at this stage, all I can assure you, we are doing absolutely all we can and we will do even more to guarantee the safe release of these people," Scipione said.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said the safety of the people was the priority of the government and the best negotiators in the world were on the job.

He asked people in Sydney to go about their days as usual tomorrow, though an exclusion zone will be in place around Martin Place.

Indian Consulate in Sydney has been locked down and evacuated as a security measure following the incident.

Talking to PTI, Sydney Consul General Sunjay Sudhir said "because of security concerns we locked down our office at 12:00 pm and asked all our officers to go to places of safety."

"Sydney Indian Consulate is 400 metres away from the Lindt cafe," Sudhir said adding the Central Business District (CBD) is the area where many Indian establishments including the SBI, Bank of Baroda and India Tourism office are located.

In New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said Indian consulate in Sydney is in touch with local authorities and all the staffers in the consulate are safe.

"Our consulate is in touch with local authorities. The External Affairs Minister has spoken to the High Commissioner in Canberra who is in touch with local organisations," Akbaruddin said.

Scipione said at this stage police were treated it as a hostage situation but were "on a footing consistent with a terrorist act".

"Clearly reprisal attacks are something that should not happen," he said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a national security meeting to deal with the disturbing event.

"This is obviously a deeply concerning incident but all Australians should be reassured that our law enforcement and security agencies are well trained and equipped and are responding in a thorough and professional manner," he said.

"We don't yet know the motivation of the perpetrator, we don't know whether this is politically motivated, although obviously there are some indications that it could be," Abbott said at a short media briefing held in Canberra, Australia's capital.

Abbott said security agencies had not detected any particular plots but the raised alert level meant there were people in Australia with the "intent and capability" to carry out a terror attack. Hundreds of police had been mobilised, including those specially trained for terrorist threats, tactical officers and negotiators to general duties officers and traffic police handling road closures.

Thousands of workers across the city have been sent home early and asked to work from there.

NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn confirmed that the situation was now a "negotiation" and the police intend to pursue it "peacefully.

"There is speculation about what he might want but we have to deal with him at the level of police negotiation," Burn says.

"We are monitoring all forms of communication, whether it is Facebook or Twitter, for any bit of information that might assist," she said.

Burn requested that if anyone has information about the situation, no matter how small, they should offer it to police.

Sydney's Muslim community condemned the incident and said they were horrified by the cafe siege.

Armed police run toward a cafe in the central business district of Sydney. Hostages were being held inside a cafe with an Islamic flag displayed against a window, according to witnesses and reports. AFP PHOTO

Armed police run toward a cafe in the central business district of Sydney. Hostages were being held inside a cafe with an Islamic flag displayed against a window, according to witnesses and reports. AFP PHOTO

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first world leaders to condemn the attack.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi described the incident as "disturbing". "Such acts are inhuman and deeply unfortunate. I pray for everyone's safety."

The hostage taker - about whom little is known - claimed he had planted bombs in the cafe and at different locations in the city.

The three men and two women who escaped from the cafe said the man forced his captives to call him "brother" and promised to release a hostage if the IS flag was delivered.

The area where the gunman struck is close to where a number of consulates, including that of India, are located.

India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj Monday sought details of the incident.

According to informed sources, she spoke to Indian High Commissioner Biren Nanda about the unfolding drama.

Her ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin tweeted: "In case of queries about Indian nationals following events in Sydney, contact Vinod Bahade at phone +61 481 453550."

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