SYDNEY – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott laid flowers Tuesday at a makeshift memorial in Sydney for the victims of a central city cafe siege that left three people dead.
Abbott wrote a message and waved to the crowd as he laid a bouquet of white flowers at the memorial in Martin Place, the plaza in central Sydney where the drama took place. His wife, Margie, laid another bouquet of red flowers.
From early Tuesday, a steady stream of tearful people placed bouquets at the memorial outside of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe, where the gunman took 17 hostages a day earlier. The siege ended 16 hours later in a barrage of gunfire that left two hostages and the Iranian-born gunman dead, and a nation that has long prided itself on its peace rocked to its core.
As the standoff that started around 9:45 a.m. stretched through the day into nightfall with no apparent solution in sight, police stormed the cafe around 2 a.m. Tuesday when they heard gunfire inside, said New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.
"They made the call because they believed that at that time, if they didn't enter, there would have been many more lives lost," Scipione said.
A loud bang rang out, several hostages ran from the building and police swooped in amid heavy gunfire, shouts and flashes. A police bomb disposal robot also was sent into the building, but no explosives were found.
The gunman was identified as 50-year-old Man Haron Monis, whom Abbott said earlier had "a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability."
Australian Muslim groups condemned the hostage-taking in a joint statement and said the inscription of the Islamic flag was a "testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals."
Many Australians offered on Twitter to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash against the country's tiny Muslim minority of some 500,000 people in a nation of 24 million. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou was used more than 90,000 times by early Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Rod McGuirk in Canberra and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.