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The man took the owners and a guest prisoner after shooting dead at least 32 people in the tourist town of Port Arthur.
The deputy police commissioner, Richard McCreadie, said the gunman has been firing on police from the house with two military-style rifles.
The traumatic scenes in Port Arthur have horrified Australia. It is thought to be the country's worst mass killing of recent times.
Packed with tourists
Witnesses say the gunman drove into Port Arthur in a car with a surfboard on the roof at about lunchtime, when the town was packed with tourists. He is described as having blond hair and a "surfy appearance".
After chatting for a while, he pulled out a rifle concealed in a tennis-racket cover and then walked into the Broad Arrow Café, where he opened fire.
As tourists ran screaming into the street he moved on to the car park where he turned on two coaches, killing several people in each one.
"He left the site shooting as he went, shooting everybody he could see," said Wendy Scurr, who was working at the front desk.
The gunman then drove to the nearby Fox and Hounds Hotel, which was crowded with Sunday diners, and continued firing.
Eyewitnesses spoke of him killing deliberately, sometimes lining up his victims before opening fire.
Confirmed victims include 30 Australians and two Canadian tourists, including several children.
He then got back in his car and drove to the guest-house where he is believed to have taken the owner and his wife hostage, as well as one of their guests.
Little has been revealed about the gunman's identity. Police say he has a history of mental problems and comes from Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. He is 28 years old, but his name has not yet been released.
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, led the horrified reactions, saying he was "shocked and appalled". The Queen has sent a message of sympathy, as did British Prime Minister John Major.
The massacre comes just weeks after 16 children and their teacher were gunned down in Dunblane, Scotland.
Moves in Britain to tighten gun laws following the Dunblane tragedy have now been echoed in Australia following today's bloodshed.
State laws on gun ownership vary, but Tasmania is known to have some of the most relaxed legislation in the country.
The gunman was later identified as Martin Bryant. He was arrested the following day after a 16-hour siege at the guest house.
He was caught after he set fire to the house, burning himself badly in the process. All three of his hostages were killed, bringing the final death toll to 35.
Bryant's victims ranged in age from three to 72. Many more were injured.
There was a public outcry when he was taken to the same hospital as many of his victims, and he was moved to a top-security prison hospital.
Bryant was found guilty of murder in November 1996 and sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. His motive remains unknown.
The Broad Arrow Café, where 20 of Bryant's victims died, has now been demolished and a memorial erected in its place.
On 10 May 1996, Australia brought in one of the world's toughest sets of rules on gun ownership.
All pump-action and semi-automatic weapons were banned under the new law, and other gun ownership legislation was tightened.
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