By Lincoln Feast and Colin Packham
Australian security forces opened fire on Tuesday as they stormed the Sydney cafe where several hostages were being held at gunpoint, in a dramatic end to a standoff that had dragged on for more than 16 hours.
Media said that three people, including the gunman, had been killed.
Heavy gunfire and loud bangs from stun grenades filled the air shortly after 2 a.m. local time.
Moments earlier at least six people believed to have been held captive managed to flee the scene after several loud bangs were heard coming from the cafe.
Medics were seen trying to resuscitate one person after the raid and took away several injured people on stretchers, said a Reuters witness at the scene in downtown Sydney.
The operation began shortly after a police source named the gunman as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee and self-styled sheikh facing multiple charges of sexual assault, as well as being an accessory to murder.
He was also found guilty in 2012 of sending offensive and threatening letters to families of eight Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, as a protest against Australia’s involvement in the conflict.
Although he was well known to the authorities, security experts said preventing attacks by people acting alone could still be difficult.
“Today’s crisis throws into sharp relief the dangers of lone wolf terrorism,” said Cornell University law professor Jens David Ohlin, speaking in New York.
“There are two areas of concern. The first is ISIS (Islamic State) fighters with foreign passports who return to their home countries to commit acts of terrorism.
“The second is ISIS sympathisers radicalised on the internet who take it upon themselves to commit terrorist attacks to fulfil their radical ideology.
“We are entering a new phase of terrorism that is far more dangerous, and more difficult to defeat, than al Qaeda ever was.”
During the siege, hostages had been forced to display an Islamic flag, igniting fears of a jihadist attack.
News footage showed hostages holding up a black and white flag displaying the Shahada – a testament to the faith of Muslims. The flag has been popular among Sunni Islamist militant groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The incident forced the evacuation of nearby buildings and sent shockwaves around a country where many people were turning their attention to the Christmas holiday following earlier security scares.
In September, anti-terrorism police said they had thwarted an imminent threat to behead a random member of the public and days later, a teenager in Melbourne was shot dead after attacking two anti-terrorism officers with a knife.
The siege cafe is in Martin Place, a pedestrian strip popular with workers on a lunch break, which was revealed as a potential location for the thwarted beheading.
In the biggest security operation in Sydney since a bombing at the Hilton Hotel killed two people in 1978, major banks closed their offices in the central business district and people were told to avoid the area.