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Gunman Slays 33; Worst Massacre in Australia’s Modern History

April 28, 1996

HOBART, Australia (AP) _ A man with a high-powered rifle opened fire Sunday on tourists visiting the ruins of one Australia’s most brutal prisons, killing at least 33 people. He took hostages and was barricaded inside a guest house early Monday.

The slaughter on the island of Tasmania _ committed by an assailant one witness described as a blond man in his late teens or early 20s _ was the worst shooting massacre in Australia during this century.

Two Canadian tourists and 30 Australians _ including several children and a baby _ were among those killed, police and witnesses said. At least 18 people were injured in the shooting at a colonial prison ruins on the island off the southern tip of Australia.

More than 200 police had surrounded a nearby bed-and-breakfast cottage Monday morning, where the gunman was believed to be holding the two owners and a guest hostage. Police tried to negotiate by phone with the man, who shot at them and at police helicopters.

About 500 tourists were milling about Sunday afternoon at the Port Arthur prison compound, one of the most popular tourist sites on Tasmania. At about 1:30 p.m., witnesses said, a young blond man drove up in a Volkswagen with a surfboard strapped to the roof. He carried a tennis bag.

He had been chatting to people calmly _ like just another tourist _ when he went into the cafe, pulled a high-powered rifle from his bag and started shooting.

``He left the site shooting as he went, shooting everybody he could see,″ said Wendy Scurr, who was working at the front desk of the historic site. She said she called for help and then ``ran for my life along with hundreds of other people at the site.″

He continued shooting outside the cafe, firing methodically at screaming tourists as they tried flee.

``He wasn’t going bang-bang-bang-bang _ it was `bang’ and then he’d pick someone else out and line them up and shoot them,″ witness Phillip Milburn told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The gunman next shot at two tourist buses, killing several tourists in each and one driver. He then fired on cars approaching the gates to the site.

``Various massacres would pale into insignificance when you look at what has happened in Tasmania,″ said Tasmanian Police Commissioner John Johnson.

Witness Karen Jones told Australian radio that a little girl was killed.

``The guy that we were with had to go and help take a stretcher in,″ she said, ``and the mother was saying, `You have to get my baby to the hospital, quick, quick.′ But it was already dead.″

The gunman moved on to a local pub, slaying more people.

``There is a lady dead in a car at the top of the drive. There’s been people shot in the historic site, and there’s been people shot near the Fox and Hounds″ pub, witness Phillip Kelly told TV Channel 10.

The police commissioner appealed to the gunman to surrender.

``All I am hoping is that whoever he is (he) will realize the terrible damage he has done and will give himself up without further fighting,″ Johnson said.

The old Port Arthur prison colony is on the Tasman Peninsula, connected to Tasmania’s mainland by one road on a narrow isthmus. Police closed off the road into Port Arthur, the landing site of some of the toughest convicts England sent into Australian exile in the 1800s.

The prison complex is Tasmania’s most popular tourist attraction after the island’s parks and wilderness areas. Its neat green lawns surround the ivy-covered remains of a Gothic church and the crumbling sandstone ruins of the old penitentiary, where 30,000 repeat offenders, political prisoners and highly dangerous convicts were sent from 1830 to 1877.

While most convicts were released, about 1,200 prisoners were held at the settlement at its peak. Before penal system changes in 1852, the convicts were kept in line by the threat and use of lashings and other tortures. Solitary confinements were for as long as 30 days, in total darkness and silence with only bread and water to eat.

The site’s dark history provided an ironic backdrop for Sunday’s shootings, which appeared to be Australia’s worst massacre in modern times. Until now, the most deadly crime was committed by Frank Vitkovic, who in 1987 slaughtered eight people in Melbourne before leaping to his death from the window of a high-rise building.

State gun laws vary in Australia, but it is fairly easy for a person without a criminal record to buy a rifle or shotgun. Pistols are less commonly owned.

Tasmania has one of the most lax gun laws in the nation. Until recent law changes, almost anyone could buy any kind of weapon _ even a machine gun.

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