Hostages freed in Texas synagogue standoff, suspect dead

Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue, Colleyville, Texas

SWAT team members on January 15, 2022 deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas where a man claiming to be the brother of a convicted terrorist took several people hostage.

Photo credit: Andy Jacobsohn | AFP

Colleyville

All four people taken hostage in a more than 10-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue have been freed unharmed, police said late Saturday, and their suspected captor is dead.

The hostage siege in the small Texas town of Colleyville -- in which the suspect was apparently demanding the release of a convicted terrorist -- had sparked an outpouring of concern from US Jewish organisations as well as from the Israeli government.

Colleyville police chief Michael Miller told a news conference that a "rescue team breached the synagogue" Saturday evening and rescued the three remaining hostages being held inside. A first hostage had been released unharmed a few hours earlier.

"The suspect is deceased," Miller told reporters.

FBI Dallas Special Agent Matt DeSarno said the four hostages -- who included a much-loved local rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, were not in need of medical attention, would soon be reunited with their families.

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

Loud explosion

There were reports from journalists at the scene of a loud explosion and gunshots at the synagogue shortly before the press conference.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott had announced that the remaining hostages were "out alive and safe" at 9.30pm (0330 Sunday GMT).

That was more than 10 hours after police were alerted to the emergency at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas.

ABC News reported that the hostage-taker was armed and had claimed to have bombs in unknown locations. That was not confirmed by police although Miller said that "bomb techs are clearing the scene."

Quoting a US official briefed on the matter, ABC reported the man was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who has been dubbed "Lady Qaeda" by US tabloids.

Suspect identified

DeSarno told the news conference the suspect had been identified but did not disclose his identity.

The FBI special agent did not confirm the suspect's demands, but said they were "focused on one issue that was not specifically threatening to the Jewish community" -- and that he did not believe there was an ongoing threat.

ABC initially said the man claimed to be Siddiqui's brother, but later clarified her brother is in Houston -- while other experts said the word the man used in Arabic was more figurative and meant "sister" in the Islamic faith.

Aafia 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.

Siddiqui, a former Pakistani scientist, was in 2010 sentenced by a New York court to 86 years in prison for attempted murder of US officers in Afghanistan. The high-profile case sparked outrage in Pakistan.

She is currently being held at Federal Medical Centre (FMC) prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

'Horrifying'

A live stream 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.

In it, he could be heard saying, "You get my sister on the phone," and "I am gonna die."

He was also heard saying: "There's something wrong with America."

Beth Israel congregation member Ellen Smith, who grew up going to the synagogue, described the situation as "shocking and horrifying" in a CNN interview.

She said the congregation was a "tight" community, and the rabbi in particular was "the best human I think anyone could ever meet."

But she said it was "not shocking" the crisis occurred in a Jewish community.

"Cases of anti-Semitism have risen lately, but since Jews were first walking the Earth, we have been persecuted," she said. "It feels almost hopeless."

Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, said he was "grateful" all the hostages had been released safely.

"No one should ever be afraid to assemble in their place of worship," the Jewish Community Relations Council said in a statement.

Condemned hostage situation

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

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said he was grateful to have received calls from people of all religious backgrounds expressing concern and hope for a peaceful outcome.

But he warned that the violence would not stop with the synagogue.

"The person who hates me today is going to hate you tomorrow. So it may start with Jews. It doesn't stop with Jews," he told CNN.

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