Melbourne: At about 9:40 am on Monday, December 15, the sun was shining and a clear blue sky enveloped Sydney. It was a stunning day, according to many. Normal office-goers and others stopped by at busy Lindt Chocolate Café for coffee. What they did not realise was how a simple morning ritual would become one of the longest nightmares of their lives. What soon happened numbed the country and the world. After the terrorist bombing of the Hilton Hotel in February 1978, a fear of this magnitude gripped the city.
An unsuspecting gunman walked in to the café, and brandishing a gun and an Islamic flag took the customers and staff hostage. Martin Place, where the café is situated and Sydney’s bustling central business district, turned into a fortress sparking a terrifying standoff with police and desperate communications by hostages of the gunman’s purported demands.
Few of the 17 anxious hostages were seen standing with their hands raised at the expansive French windows of the cafe. A black and white flag, believed to be a jihadi flag with Arabic script proclaiming Allah as the true God was held up in a window. Among them were two Indians.
Security forces were quick to respond. They took up positions soon after the gunman struck at 9.40 a.m. The armed man, later identified as Man Haron Monis (see page 9) demanded that he be provided an Islamic State (IS) flag and said he wanted to talk to Prime Minister Abbott. Possession of the IS flag is illegal in Australia.
News of the siege – which took place opposite Channel Seven’s city studios – was relayed almost instantaneous, with the drama unfolding throughout the day. The gunman forced hostages to call multiple media outlets to outline his demands.
Police asked the media not to relay the demands due to the hugely sensitive negotiation with the hostage-taker which was currently underway then.
The hostage taker claimed he had planted bombs in the cafe and at different locations in the city.
Nearby streets were cordoned off. Train services were shut down nearby. The police also evacuated the Sydney Opera House and shut down traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Police forces also moved to a “footing” similar to tackling a terror attack.
As Australia – and the world – was transfixed by the unfolding crisis, a massive and heavily armed police presence swarmed the building hosting the cafe as police negotiators sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
For almost five hours, the scene was static with snipers manning surrounding rooftops and armed members of the tactical response group swarming the building that fronts Martin Place between Phillip and Elizabeth Street.
After almost six hours, three male hostages suddenly ran out from the building, two through the cafe’s main entrance while another, wearing an apron and a staff member, came running out from a nearby fire escape followed by a police officer.
Again, about one-and-a¬-half hours later, two women in Lindt aprons, with fear writ large on their faces sprinted down Martin Place and into the arms of waiting police. By evening, five hostages had escaped the scene.
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.
“We are being tested today in Sydney,” NSW Premier Mike Baird said. “The police are being tested, but whatever the test, we will face it head on and we will remain a strong, democratic, civil society”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott described it 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”.
Several heads of state took to social media to express support. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first world leaders to condemn the attack. “Such acts are inhuman and deeply unfortunate. I pray for everyone’s safety,” he tweeted. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also sent a message saying his country’s “thoughts and prayers are with our Australian friends”.
The crisis shocked Australia. “It is an enormous blow to all of us,” said a shopper.
In Canberra, the National Security Committee of Cabinet convened for briefings.
As Channel Seven aired footage of the armed offender, there were reports that police had identified the man but did not name him for reasons of security. Meanwhile NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn updated the media and confirmed negotiators have spoken with the gunman. She asked people in buildings facing Martin Place to remain there while everybody else could go home as the working day ended.
Australia’s top Muslim cleric condemned the hostage taking, saying it is “denounced in Islam”. Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, the country’s grand mufti, said the Muslim community was “devastated” by the hostage situation, where an armed man, showing Islamic flags, took over 30 as hostages in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place. Sydney’s Muslim leaders earlier met to offer help to authorities in the face of the unfolding hostage drama.
The siege continued well into the night for about 16 hours. At about 8 pm, lights inside the café were turned off and visibility inside was almost nil.
The 16-hour siege came to dramatic end at about 2 am when a loud bang was heard from inside the café and five hostages came running out. Minutes later, police stormed the building after hearing what sounded like gunfire and explosions. A police bomb disposal robot was also sent into the building but no explosives were found. The gunman was shot dead and two hostages also lost their lives but it was not known whether they were shot by the gunman or caught in the crossfire.
The dead included Lindt manager Tori Johnson (34) and barrister Katrina Dawson (38). Three women were treated for non life threatening injuries. A policeman also suffered facial injuries and two pregnant women were assessed on the scene. Few were carried out on stretchers. Ambulance had been lined up along Macquarie Street outside the old Sydney Hopsital for emergency.
On Tuesday, December 16, Sydneysiders came out in strength to pay tribute and show solidarity to those who lost their lives and to the hostages who suffered a long ordeal. A great outpouring of love and compassion from Australians who work up with an aching heart.