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Texas synagogue standoff: Hostages safe, captor dead

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Four hostages are safe and their captor is dead after an hours-long standoff that began when the man took over services at a Texas synagogue where he could be heard ranting on a livestream and demanding the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill US Army officers in Afghanistan.

One hostage held at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville was released during the standoff. The three others were freed on Saturday night when an FBI SWAT team entered the building, authorities said.

The hostage taker was killed and FBI special agent in charge Matt DeSarno said a team would investigate “the shooting incident.”

DeSarno said there was no immediate indication that the man was part of any broader plan, adding that the agency’s investigation “will have global reach.”

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It wasn’t clear why the attacker chose the synagogue.

Law enforcement officials who were not authorised to discuss the ongoing investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity earlier said that the hostage-taker demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.

He also said he wanted to be able to speak with her, according to the officials. Siddiqui is in federal prison in Texas.

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A rabbi in New York City received a call from the rabbi believed to be held hostage in the synagogue to demand Siddiqui’s release, a law enforcement official said. The New York rabbi then called 911.

Police were first called to the synagogue around 11 am and people were evacuated from the surrounding neighbourhood soon after that, FBI Dallas spokeswoman Katie Chaumont said.

Saturday’s services were being live-streamed on the synagogue’s Facebook page for a time. Local newspaper The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that an angry man could be heard ranting and talking about religion at times during the livestream, which did not show what was happening inside the synagogue.

Multiple people heard the hostage-taker refer to Siddiqui as his “sister” on the live stream. John Floyd, board chair for the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations — the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group — said Siddiqui’s brother, Mohammad Siddiqui, was not involved.

“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia. We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia,” said Floyd, who also is legal counsel for Mohammad Siddiqui.

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“We have confirmed that the family member being wrongly accused of this heinous act is not near the DFW Metro area.”

Texas resident Victoria Francis told AP that she watched about an hour of the livestream before it cut out. She said she heard the man rant against America and claim he had a bomb.

“The more irritated he got, he’d make more threats,” she said. “He was clearly in extreme distress.”

A Meta company spokesperson confirmed that Facebook removed the video in the meantime.

Colleyville, a community of about 26,000 people, is about 23 kilometres northeast of Fort Worth. The synagogue is nestled among large houses in a leafy residential neighbourhood that includes several churches, a middle and elementary school and a horse farm.

Congregation Beth Israel is led by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who has been there since 2006 as the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi.

President Joe Biden issued a statement thanking law enforcement after the hostage situation ended.

“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,” Biden said.

The standoff had prompted increased security in other places, including New York City, where police said that they had increased their presence “at key Jewish institutions” out of an abundance of caution.

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Siddiqui earned advanced degrees from Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before she was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in prison on charges that she assaulted and shot at US Army officers after being detained in Afghanistan two years earlier.

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

In the years since, Pakistan officials have expressed interest in any sort of deal or swap that could result in her release from US custody, and her case has continued to draw attention from supporters.

In 2018, for instance, an Ohio man who prosecutors say planned to fly to Texas and attack the prison where Siddiqui is being held in an attempt to free her was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

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