Hostages freed after standoff at Texas synagogue, gunman dead

Officials say hostage-taker demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is serving a prison term in the US.

SWAT team members deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.
SWAT team members deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas [Andy Jacobsohn/ AFP]

All four people who were held hostage at a synagogue in the US state of Texas have been safely released, more than 10 hours after a gunman disrupted a religious service and began a tense standoff with police.

Members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team stormed the Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday evening to free remaining hostages after one captive was released unharmed earlier in the day.

Local reporters said they heard the sound of explosions and gunfire, shortly before Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced the crisis was over.

“Prayers answered. All hostages are out alive and safe,” Abbott said on Twitter.

Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said the gunman had died, but authorities declined to confirm the cause of his death.

The FBI said they had established the gunman’s identity but said they would not disclose it.

The incident was first reported to the Colleyville Police Department at 10:41am local time (16:41 GMT) on Saturday, during the Shabbat service, which was being broadcast online.

The police deployed SWAT teams and evacuated residents of the area.

Demanded Aafia’s release

FBI Dallas Special Agent Matt DeSarno said the four hostages – who included a local rabbi – did not need medical attention and would soon be reunited with their families.

“He did not harm them in any way,” he said.

The officials said the hostage-taker was heard demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in prison on charges that she assaulted and shot at US military officers after being detained in Afghanistan.

The punishment had sparked outrage in Pakistan among political leaders and her supporters, who viewed her as victimised by the American criminal justice system. Siddiqui is in federal prison in Texas.

DeSarno did not confirm the suspect’s demands, but said they were “focused on one issue that was not specifically threatening to the Jewish community”.

ABC News initially said the man claimed to be Siddiqui’s brother, but later clarified her brother is in Houston.

Siddiqui’s lawyer said she “has absolutely no involvement” in the hostage situation in a statement to CNN. The lawyer confirmed that the man was not Siddiqui’s brother and said she condemned his actions.

People carry flags and signs demanding release of Aafia Siddiqui
People carry flags and signs demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui during a protest march in Karachi, Pakistan, on October 8, 2021 [File: Akhtar Soomro/ Reuters]

A livestream of the congregation’s Shabbat morning service, available on Facebook for around four hours during the standoff, appeared to capture audio of a man talking loudly – although it did not show the scene inside the building.

The man could be heard repeatedly saying he did not want to see anyone hurt and that he believed he was going to die, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Barry Klompus, a member of the congregation since it opened in 1999, told the Reuters news agency that he tuned into the livestream.

“It was horrible listening and watching, and it’s that much more horrible not knowing,” Klompus said in a telephone interview.

CAIR condemns ‘evil’ act

President Joe Biden, who was briefed on the crisis as it unfolded, praised the “courageous work” of state, local and federal law enforcement officers in freeing the hostages.

“I am grateful to the tireless work of law enforcement at all levels who acted cooperatively and fearlessly to rescue the hostages,” he said.

“There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker. But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate – we will stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country,” he said in a statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked US law enforcement after the hostage situation ended.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) condemned the hostage situation and said it was in contact with Colleyville Jewish leaders to “provide any assistance possible”.

“This latest antisemitic attack on Jewish Americans worshipping at a synagogue is an act of pure evil,” CAIR, the US Muslim advocacy group, said in a statement.

“We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community, and we pray that law enforcement authorities are able to swiftly and safely free the hostages. No cause can justify or excuse this crime.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies