SYDNEY - Grieving Australians on Tuesday eulogised the victims of the Sydney cafe siege as authorities investigated why its Iranian-born perpetrator had remained at large despite a history of violence and extremism.
Emotions were raw as Australia awoke to the news that two hostages were killed when the day-long siege reached a climax in the early hours, as police commandos stormed the Lindt eatery in response to the Islamist gunman opening fire.
A sea of flowers were laid at a makeshift memorial near the scene in the heart of Sydney's financial quarter, as Muslim community leaders joined their fellow Sydneysiders in mourning the victims, who were acclaimed as heroes.
"They were just going to work like everyone else, just going to get a cup of coffee. That could have been absolutely anyone," one of those bearing flowers, Angelica Haifa, told AFP.
Police in SWAT-style gear hurled percussion grenades and opened fire as they stormed the cafe just after 2:00 am on Tuesday, following a standoff of more than 16 hours. The 50-year-old lone gunman, widely named as Man Haron Monis, was shot and killed in the exchange that followed, officials said.
Two of the 17 hostages died: cafe manager Tori Johnson, 34, and mother-of-three Katrina Dawson, 38.
Six others were wounded, including three women with gunshot wounds, among them a 75-year-old. Two pregnant women were taken to hospital as a precaution.
At a prayer service in St Mary's Cathedral near the cafe, Archbishop Anthony Fisher said the "heart of our city is broken by the deaths of two innocents".
"Reports have emerged this morning of the heroism of the male victim of this siege," Fisher said.
"Apparently seeing an opportunity Tori Johnson grabbed the gun, tragically it went off killing him. But it triggered the response of the police and eventual freedom for most of the hostages.
"Reports have also emerged that Katrina Dawson was shielding her pregnant friend from gunfire. These heroes were willing to lay down their lives so others might live."
New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn did not confirm the chain of events, only that investigators were still working out what happened.