NEW DELHI/SYDNEY: Heavily armed Australian police stormed a Sydney cafe early on Tuesday to end a 17-hour siege sparked by an Islamist, who took several people — including two Indians — hostage.
The siege, which saw three people, including the gunman killed and four injured, began at 9.44 am local time (4.15 am IST) on Monday, when self-styled Sheikh Man Haron Monis took several hostages at the Lindt cafe at Martin place.
The Indian consulate in Sydney, which was just 300-400 metres from the site, was evacuated with the police cordoning off the area.
The siege ended just before 2.30 am local time on Tuesday morning in Sydney when security forces in SWAT-style gear stormed in, unleashing a flurry of loud bangs and flashes.
Infosys employee Viswakanth Ankireddy was in the last batch of hostages who ran out of the cafe. There was also another Indian hostage in the cafe who was later declared safe, but apart from his name — Pushpendu Ghosh — no other details emerged.
Sources told Express that Indian government came to know that Indian nationals were hostages very early in the crisis.
However, it was only late in the afternoon that Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu stated, “One of our IT persons is also there”.
The presence of at least one Indian inside came to light through text messages from one of the hostages inside the cafe around 10.30 am.
“One of our circle (of friends) had a classmate inside who was held hostage. He said there was an Indian among them,” a politically-active member of the local Indian community in Sydney told Express. “We confirmed his identity when he came to the window. That was about 1.30 pm,” he said.
Monis brought hostages to the cafe window one by one and forced many of them to hold up a black ‘shahada’ Islamic flag.
It was this black flag containing Arabic script that triggered speculation of an IS lone wolf attack, as one of the two demands made by the gunman Man Haron Monis was for an Islamic State flag. The other demand had been to speak to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Here in Delhi, the first reaction was a tweet from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s account at 8.46 am IST. “The incident in Sydney is disturbing. Such acts are inhuman & deeply unfortunate. I pray for everyone’s safety,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs advertised two phone numbers for inquiries about Indian nationals. But, there was not a single official mention of any Indian hostage.
Officials here were therefore taken aback when Naidu mentioned there was an IT professional at the hostage scene. In Australia, authorities were not even releasing the number of hostages, let alone their identities.
Later, Naidu tried to retract, stating that this was not confirmed. “All this information here and there — nothing has been confirmed about any citizens of our country is in that or not. It is a sensitive matter. I request all people to show restraint till the issue is resolved.”
But it was too late. IT major Infosys in a statement said one of its employees in Sydney was among the hostages and that the employee’s family has been informed about it.
“We can confirm that one Infosys employee is among the hostages at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney,” the company said.
Ankireddy’s safety was confirmed through television grabs that showed him - wearing a white shirt and black pants - running out with two other women with hands held high, a few minutes before the police began their mopping-up operation.
Even at the time, there was still no public acknowledgment about a second hostage, which only came through the Tweet from External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
“Another Indian hostage Pushpendu Ghosh is also safe,” she posted, noting that PM was “monitoring the situation throughout”.
Modi took to Twitter to say that India’s “thoughts and prayers are with the people of Sydney and Australia”. “We should stand with them during these testing times,” he said.