SYDNEY — Tearful Australians laid mounds of flowers at the site where a gunman held hostages for 16 hours at a popular Sydney cafe Tuesday, as people began questioning how authorities let the attack occur in the first place.
The siege ended early Tuesday with 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.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott joined the outpouring of national mourning and laid a bouquet at Martin Place, the plaza in Sydney’s financial and shopping district where the crisis occurred that has since become the site of a makeshift memorial.
The gunman was identified as 50-year-old Man Haron Monis, whom Abbott said had “a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability.” He was “a deeply disturbed individual” known to the police but he was not on a terror watch list, Abbott said.
After a day of intense drama, a host of questions remained: Why was the gunman, a self-styled Muslim cleric with a sordid criminal history, let out on bail? How did he get hold of a shotgun in a country that bans gun sales?
The siege heightened fears of a terror attack, but it also produced heart-rending displays of solidarity among Australians who reached out to their Muslim compatriots.
Monis was convicted and sentenced last year to 300 hours of community service for sending what a judge called “grossly offensive” letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009.
He later was charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. Earlier this year, he was charged with the sexual assault of a woman in 2002. He has been out on bail on the charges.
Police were investigating whether he was the registered owner of the shotgun that he used.
Abbott said that the country’s senior officials have raised the same questions among themselves as the public into how this could happen.
“How can someone who has had such a long and checkered history not be on the appropriate watch list? And how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?” Abbott asked. “These are questions we need to look at carefully and calmly and methodically. That’s what we’ll be doing in the days and weeks ahead.”
Many Australians offered on Twitter to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash against the country’s Muslim minority of 500,000 in a nation of 24 million. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou — or I’ll Ride With You — was used more than 90,000 times by early Tuesday.
But the most visible reaction the day after the siege was the flowers blanketing the pavement at Martin Place, where the siege began during rush hour Monday morning. The gunman burst into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe, took 17 people inside as hostages and then forced some to hold a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith above the shop window’s festive inscription of “Merry Christmas.”
“I’ll never forget this day as long as I live,” said Jenny Borovina, who was in tears with two friends carrying white flowers to the site. The effect of the standoff would leave a permanent scar on Australia’s psyche, she predicted. “Our laid-back nature has just changed.”
Like so many who work in the area, Borovina said she was locked down in her office near the cafe for more than four hours Monday before police gave her the all-clear to leave. During that time, she said, she called her son to say take care. She also called her aunt, asking her to look after her son if she didn’t make it out alive.
“Australia was a really safe place before,” said Andrea Wang, who laid a bouquet of lilies at the site, near her office.
“I hope our country gets through this very quickly,” she said, adding that her family from China had been calling. “They worry about me in this country.”
As the standoff that started around 9:45 a.m. stretched through the day and 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.
Scipione wouldn’t say whether the two dead hostages — a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman — were caught in crossfire, or shot by their captor.
One of the victims was Katrina Dawson, a Sydney lawyer and mother of three children.
“Katrina was one of our best and brightest barristers who will be greatly missed by her colleagues and friends” Jane Needham, president of the New South Wales Bar Association, said in a statement.
The other victim was identified in Australian media as the manager of the cafe, Tori Johnson.
Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said three women were treated in hospital for gunshot wounds and were in stable condition. A police officer was treated for shotgun pellet wounds and discharged, she said.
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.”
National flags were lowered to half-staff on the landmark Harbour Bridge as Australians awakened to the surreal conclusion of the crisis. The state’s premier expressed disbelief that the attack could happen in Australia — a place he dubbed “a peaceful, harmonious society which is the envy of the world.”
Many struggled to come to terms with the incongruous nature of the attack at a cheerful cafe, as people filed in for their morning coffees.
“It’s shocking that it has happened to people like us that are just going out for a coffee,” said Michael Gardiner, a visitor from the western city of Perth, who recalled sitting in the cafe about a year ago. “But it’s beautiful to see everyone coming here. There’s a real sense of community.”
Authorities stressed that the actions were by a lone, disturbed individual and weren’t part of any larger terrorist plot.
“There is nothing more Australian than dropping in at the local cafe for a morning coffee,” said Abbott, the prime minister. “And it’s tragic beyond words that people going about their everyday business should have been caught up in such a horrific incident.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.