BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Six people, including two young police officers, were shot dead at a property in rural Australia after officers who had arrived to investigate reports of a missing person were ambushed, authorities said on Tuesday .
Police said the violence began around 4:45 p.m. Monday when four officers arrived at a remote property in Queensland state.
At least two heavily armed gunmen opened fire on officers at the rural estate in Wieambilla, authorities said. Police returned fire, but two officers were seriously injured and died at the scene, and a neighbor was also killed during the firefight, police said.
In that first confrontation, a third officer was grazed by a bullet while the fourth escaped, Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll said. She said it was a miracle that two officers survived and one was able to sound the alarm.
“In my opinion, the officers didn’t stand a chance, and I don’t know how two of them got out alive,” Carroll said after visiting the crime scene. She said the officers were shot in a exposed area in front of the house.
Police identified the officers killed as Officers Matthew Arnold, 26, and Rachel McCrow, 29. Arnold was sworn in as an officer in 2020 and McCrow in 2021.
Ian Leavers, the president of the Queensland Police Union, said officers were caught in a hail of gunfire. He said when an officer took cover in the tall grass, the perpetrators lit a fire to try to lure them out.
“She actually believed that she would either be shot or burned alive,” Leavers told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
After the officer sounded the alarm, authorities said a siege situation had developed at the property, calling in specialized police officers and air support. Carroll said 16 officers risked their lives to recover the bodies of officers who were killed, not knowing whether their colleagues were dead or alive.
Just after 10:30 p.m., two men and a woman were killed in the second major confrontation with police, ending the violence, police said. Carroll said all three of those killed were believed to be perpetrators.
The commissioner fought back tears as she spoke to the media.
“It’s an unimaginable tragedy,” Carroll said. “This was incredibly distressing and tragic for everyone, especially the family, the officers involved, colleagues, the organization and the community.”
She said it had been many years since multiple Queensland Service officers had been killed in a single operation.
“Losing two officers in an incident is absolutely devastating,” she said.
Carroll said local police were acting at the request of authorities in the neighboring state of New South Wales to investigate a person who had been reported missing 12 months earlier but who had been in contact with people until recently.
She said the investigation was continuing and it was too early to say if police were lured to the property. She said the 58-year-old neighbor may have come over after seeing a fire at the property or hearing gunshots.
Leavers said the killings amounted to an execution.
“What happened yesterday is that two police officers were murdered in cold blood,” he told reporters.
Carroll said the two officers killed were highly respected and well liked.
“They were both dedicated and courageous young people who had a passion for the police force and for serving their community,” Carroll said. “Both under 30 years old. Both had wonderful careers and lives ahead of them.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters in Sydney the country mourned with those affected.
“This is indeed a devastating day for all who loved these Australians and our hearts go out to those who are gripped by terrible sadness,” he said. “We know this news has hit a close-knit and caring Queensland community hard. And of course the community to which all police officers belong.”
He said officials across the country are aware of the risks they face and are still doing their duty.
“And today, and every day, I pay tribute to every single police officer who serves their local communities and who serves their nation,” Albanese said. “This is not a price anyone should pay for putting on the uniform.”
An emergency declaration remained in place for the Wieambilla area Tuesday and a crime scene had been set up at the property. The area is sparsely populated and has several large properties and gas fields.