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All hostages safe following standoff inside Texas synagogue; captor dead

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 live stream and demanding the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan.

Hostage taker was specifically focused on issue not directly connected to Jewish community, FBI says

Law enforcement teams stage near a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday, where authorities said a man took hostages. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP/Getty Images)

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 live stream and demanding the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan.

One of the four hostages held at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville — a community of about 26,000 people near Fort Worth — was released during the standoff; three others got out about 9 p.m. 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."

Video from Dallas TV station WFAA shows people running out a door of the synagogue, and then a man holding a gun opening the same door just seconds later, before he turns around and closes the door. Moments later, several rounds of gunfire can be heard, followed by the sound of an explosion.

FBI and police spokespeople declined to answer questions about who shot the man.

DeSarno said the hostage taker was specifically focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community and there was no immediate indication that the man was part of any broader plan, but DeSarno said the agency's investigation "will have global reach."

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

Law enforcement officials who were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation and spoke to the AP 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.

DeSarno said Saturday night that the man had been identified "but we are not prepared to release his identity or confirm his identity at this time."

Neighbourhood evacuated

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 a.m. and people were evacuated from the surrounding neighborhood soon after that, FBI Dallas spokesperson Katie Chaumont said.

Colleyville police Chief Michael Miller addresses reporters in a nearby parking lot after the conclusion of a SWAT operation at the synagogue on Saturday. All four hostages were safe following the hours-long standoff. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/The Associated Press)

The services were being livestreamed on the synagogue's Facebook page for a time. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that an angry man could be heard ranting and talking about religion at times during the live stream, which didn't show what was happening inside the synagogue.

Shortly before 2 p.m., the man said, "You got to do something. I don't want to see this guy dead." Moments later, the feed cut out. A Meta company spokesperson later confirmed that Facebook removed the video.

Multiple people heard the hostage-taker refer to Siddiqui as his "sister" on the live stream. But 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. "We have confirmed that the family member being wrongly accused of this heinous act is not near the DFW Metro area."

'Surreal' events

Texas resident Victoria Francis told the 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.

"He was just all over the map. He was pretty irritated and the more irritated he got, he'd make more threats, like `I'm the guy with the bomb. If you make a mistake, this is all on you.' And he'd laugh at that," she said. "He was clearly in extreme distress."

Francis, who grew up near Colleyville, tuned in after she read about the hostage situation. She said it sounded like the man was talking to the police department on the phone, with the rabbi and another person trying to help with the negotiations.

The synagogue is nestled among large houses in a leafy residential neighborhood that includes several churches, a middle and elementary school and a horse farm.

Police respond to the hostage situation in Colleyville on Saturday. (Emil Lippe/Getty Images)

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

Anna Salton Eisen, a founder and former president of the synagogue, said the congregation has about 140 members and Cytron-Walker has worked hard to build interfaith relationships in the community, including doing pulpit swaps and participating in a community peace walk. She described Saturday's events as "surreal."

"This is unlike anything we've ever experienced. You know, it's a small town and it's a small congregation," Eisen said. "No matter how it turns out it's hard to fathom how we will all be changed by this, because surely we will be."

Increased security elsewhere

U.S. 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter that he had been monitoring the situation closely. "This event is a stark reminder that antisemitism is still alive and we must continue to fight it worldwide," he wrote. He said he was "relieved and thankful" that the hostages were rescued.

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.

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 U.S. 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 victimized by the American criminal justice system.

In the years since, Pakistan officials have expressed interest publicly in any sort of deal or swap that could result in her release from U.S. 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.

With files from Reuters

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