Police say three people are dead -- including the gunman -- after authorities stormed a Sydney cafe early Tuesday, bringing to a dramatic end a 16-hour standoff in which a jihadist and murder suspect had held 17 hostages in a scene much of the world watched on television.
A series of explosions, believed to be gunshots and flash grenades, came just before 2:30 a.m. local time as several more hostages fled Lindt Chocolat Cafe, where a man identified as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian also known for sending hate mail to the families of fallen soldiers, was holed up with the captives. Authorities say Monis was shot and killed during the confrontation with police.
A 34-year-old man and 38-year-old woman also were among the dead, police said. Four people were injured in the raid, including a female hostage who was shot in the leg, an official told The Associated Press. One policeman, who suffered a gunshot wound in the face, is in good condition and is grateful to be alive, Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters at a press conference.
Several people were taken from the building on stretchers as an alarm rang and police in riot gear moved in and out of the shop, in the heart of Australia's largest city's business district. A bomb disposal robot was seen being deployed in the shop, though police said the standoff was over. Authorities later said no explosive devices were found.
The handful of hostages seen fleeing as the explosions echoed through the predawn air followed escapes hours earlier by five captives.
"Sydney siege is over. More details to follow" New South Wales police posted on Twitter.
Scipione called the ordeal a "distressing time" for the families of those involved.
“We are strong together. We will get through this," added New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.
For hours, television news crews had broadcast footage of frightened hostages looking out through the front window. Initially, police did not identify Monis, though they knew he was the suspect inside. His identity was known early on to police and media alike, but was only released for the record by police sources as night fell on Sydney with the nation transfixed on the televised scene.
During the evening hours on Monday, several people were seen with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people were seen holding up a black flag associated with Islamic fanaticism. Australian broadcaster Network Ten reported that Monis, seen wielding a shotgun and a machete, has forced hostages to call him "The Brother" and demanded to speak directly with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
"The gunman seems to be sort of rotating these people through these positions on the windows with their hands and faces up against the glass," Seven Network television news reporter Chris Reason said, according to The Associated Press. "One woman we've counted was there for at least two hours -- an extraordinary, agonizing time for her surely having to stand on her feet for that long."
The drama began during the Monday morning rush hour and carried into night time in Australia's largest city. Five hostages escaped some six hours into the ordeal, running out a side door and into the arms of police, who have the shop surrounded. The shop is in Sydney's central business district in Martin Place, a plaza in the heart of the city's financial and shopping district that is packed with holiday shoppers this time of year. Shops in the area were closed and people were ordered to stay out.
A journalist on the scene tweeted that the terror suspect appeared to fly into a rage after the hostages escaped.
"The gunman could be seen from here getting extremely agitated, shouting at remaining hostages," tweeted journalist Chris Reason.
Reason described Monis as unshaven, wearing a white shirt and a black cap, and holding what appeared to be a pump-action shotgun. He could be seen pacing back and forth past the cafe's four windows. Sky News described Monis as bearded, middle-aged and wearing a black and white headband. Sky cited reports that he is known to police and media outlets.
"Just two hours ago when we saw that rush of escapees, we could see from up here in this vantage point the gunman got extremely agitated as he realized those five had got out. He started screaming orders at the people, the hostages who remain behind," Reason reported.
Monis, who reportedly emigrated to Australia in 1996, is known in Australia for his public campaign of writing letters to the families of fallen soldiers calling them “murderers” and urging the recipients to lobby the government to withdraw from Afghanistan. Haron was charged in 2009 with using the postal service to harass in a case he fought all the way to Australia’s highest court, which dismissed his appeal.
Last year, he was charged in connection with the murder of his ex-wife in a case that is pending as Monis is free on bail. He was charged earlier this year with sexual assault of a woman who went to his office in New South Wales for "spiritual healing."
"This is a one-off random individual. It's not a concerted terrorism event or act. It's a damaged goods individual who's done something outrageous," his former lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness."
Monis ran a website which was taken down shortly after he was named as the gunman in the hostage situation, Sky News reports. In a letter posted to the website, which he signed Sheikh Haron, he accused Australia, Britain and the U.S. of "oppression and terrorism" and posted images of dead children.
Monis also reportedly called for non-violent activism, writing that "Islam is the religion of peace and a Muslim should be a peace activist."
As night descended on Sydney, the lights inside the shop went off, but it was unclear if that was by the suspected jihadist's choice or if the police made the cafe go dark as a negotiating tactic. Earlier, the gunman appeared to be rotating frightened hostages in front of the window, holding up the black Islamist flag "Shahada" flag, an emblem of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda-linked terror group fighting - sometimes with, sometimes against - Islamic State in Syria.
The gunman was reportedly relaying threats and demands through two hostages, and claimed to have planted two bombs inside the cafe and two others elsewhere in Sydney's central business district.
Late Monday, Abbott released a pre-recorded statement calling the attack "very disturbing" and "profoundly shocking." His office didn't respond to the gunman's demands.
Three men were seen running from a fire exit of the cafe approximately six hours after the hostage situation began at 9:45 a.m. local time. Moments later, two women believed to be employees, followed suit. It was not immediately clear how the hostages escaped.
The U.S. Consulate, located just south of the cafe, was also evacuated and a warning issued urging Americans in Sydney to "maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security." A White House official told Fox News that President Obama had been briefed on the situation.
Lindt Australia posted a message on its Facebook page thanking the public for its support.
"We are deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families," the company wrote.
The government raised Australia's terror warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group. Counterterror law enforcement teams later conducted dozens of raids and made several arrests in Australia's three largest cities -- Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. One man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an Islamic State leader in Syria to behead a random person in downtown Sydney.
The Islamic State group, which now holds a third of Syria and Iraq, has threatened Australia in the past. In September, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio message urging so-called "lone wolf" attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia. Al-Adnani told Muslims to kill all "disbelievers," whether they be civilians or soldiers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.