Police have stormed Sydney’s Lindt cafe, ending a 16-hour siege by a gunman identified as an Iranian refugee who took dozens of hostages.
Paramedics carrying stretchers raced towards the cafe moments after the commandos entered the building. Several people were injured.
Unconfirmed local reports say two people, including the gunman, died.
The centre of the city has been in lockdown since the gunman seized the hostages early on Monday morning.
Early in the siege, hostages were forced to hold up a black Islamic banner at the window.
The cafe is located in Martin Place, a busy shopping area in Sydney’s financial district.
Australia’s PM Tony Abbott said it was “profoundly shocking” that people were being “held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation”.
Shortly after 2AM local time on December 16, several hostages fled from the building.
Minutes later, army commandos with assault rifles and wearing helmets and body armor could be seen piling into the cafe, tossing stun grenades ahead of them, and apparently opening fire.
Hostages ran to safety with their hands in the air. A man and a woman were seen being carried to safety by emergency services.
New South Wales police announced the end of the siege at 02:44AM local time in a tweet, promising details later.
The commandos who stormed the building were from the Royal Australian Regiment.
As many as 40 customers and staff were taken hostage. Five managed to escape through a fire exit on Monday afternoon.
Suspected gunman Man Haron Monis, 49, received political asylum in Australia in 1996 and was on bail facing a number of charges.
On a website, now suspended, Man Haron Monis describes himself as a Shia Muslim who converted to Sunni Islam.
The self-styled cleric was described by his former lawyer as an isolated figure.
One of Man Haron Monis’ demands was to have a flag of Islamic State, the Sunni militant group which recently seized territory in Syria and Iraq, to be delivered to the cafe.
Martin Place is home to the state premier’s office and the headquarters of major banks.
At the nearby Sydney Opera House, evening performances were cancelled as shops and offices in the area shut early due to the security situation.
[youtube yelMwzD9KiI 650]
For her arrival in sunny Australia, Kate Middleton opted for a yellow and white blocked Ryedale dress from the Roksanda Ilincic spring 2014 collection.
The Duchess of Cambridge accessorized with her trusty nude L.K. Bennett pumps for the occasion.
Kate Middleton opted for a yellow and white blocked Ryedale dress from the Roksanda Ilincic spring 2014 collection (photo Getty Images)
Prince William and Kate Middleton headed over to the iconic Sydney Opera House where more frenzied fans got a closer look at Kate’s new dress.
According to Hello magazine, Prince William wasn’t quite as impressed by Kate’s designer frock.
“William said I look like a banana!” Kate Middleton exclaimed to an onlooker.
Earth Hour 2012 made famous landmarks from all around the world, which normally light up the night sky, to plunge into darkness today to raise the profile of climate change.
Sydney’s iconic Harbor Bridge and Opera House were among the first buildings around the world to begin the blackout.
Later on Washington’s National Cathedral, London’s Clock Tower, the Great Wall of China and Tokyo Tower will also be dimmed at 8:30 p.m. local time.
Central Sydney icons have been taking part in the annual event since Earth Hour began as a Sydney-only event in 2007.
Australia is among the first countries to hit the light switches each year.
In New Zealand, Sky Tower in Auckland and parliament buildings in Wellington switched off two hours earlier.
The small island nation of Samoa was the first to switch off the lights.
The Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge plunged into darkness today to raise the profile of climate change
The Faleolo International Airport went dark as the community came together to launch a number of local green activities for the year ahead.
People in Fiji also switched off their lights where possible despite the devastating floods.
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Washington-based environmental group that organizes the event, said the number of countries and territories participating had grown from 135 last year to 147 this year.
Organizers say businesses and residents in 6,400 towns and cities are taking part.
Libya, Algeria, Bhutan and French Guinea are among those participating for the first time.
WWF official Dermot O’Gorman said: “Earth Hour 2012 is a celebration of people power; the world’s largest mass event in support of the planet.”
UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon said: “Turning off our lights is a symbol of our commitment to sustainable energy for all.
“We need to fuel our future with clean, efficient and affordable energy. By acting together today, we can power a brighter tomorrow.”