SYDNEY, April 28 -- A lone gunman fired at crowds of terrified tourists on the island state of Tasmania for more than two hours Sunday, killing at least 32 people and wounding 18 others in the worst shooting massacre in Australian history, officials said. The assailant, who began firing without warning in the historic town of Port Arthur around mid-afternoon, retreated to a farmhouse where he held at least three people hostage and as darkness fell continued firing at more than 200 police who surrounded the structure. A special unit trained to deal with terrorist situations was also at the scene. Authorities were in contact with the assailant via telephone, but said the man, whom they did not identify, had made no demands. Police said they could not be sure whether or not the hostages were alive because the gunman had fired so many shots from the house. Late Sunday, police said they did not plan to take any action until at least early Monday morning. They continued to speak with the gunman via telephone, but provided no details about the conversations. Officials also said the death toll could rise when they searched for victims in the morning. Witnesses said the gunman began his shooting spree in a fast-food restaurant in Port Arthur, a former convict settlement and one of Tasmania's oldest towns and most popular tourist attractions. He moved to the Fox and Hounds hotel, where he again opened fire, then moved to the Seascape Guesthouse and continued the killings.
He also shot at helicopters trying to ferry the wounded to hospitals in Hobart, they said. Karen Jones of Hobart said she was touring the area when the gunman began shooting, spraying bullets indiscriminately. 'Our tour guide pushed us into a house and told us to lock the doors and stay there,' she said. 'There was one woman calling for someone to help her baby, but she was already dead...I saw another dead woman. 'He then went to the toll gate (into the reserve) and shot everyone coming in,' Jones said. She said the man appeared to be 19 or 20 years old and had a surfboard on the roof of his car. Tasmanian Police Commissioner John Johnson appealed to theassailant to 'realize the terrible damage he has done and give himself up without further violence. 'Why he has done this no one knows. If he has done it to make some point in life, he has made this point and now is the time to come out and avoid any more bloodshed,' Johnson said. The house where the gunman took refuge has a commanding view of its surroundings, making an assault by police risky, witnesses said. Roadblocks were erected and police helicopters were hovering over Port Arthur, 60 miles (100 km) southeast of the capital Hobart. An official at one Hobart hospital said all available surgeons had been summoned to deal with the flood of wounded and that all operating rooms were in full use. Other hospitals were braced to deal with casualties, and trauma counselors and psychiatrists were on hand to speak with shooting victims. Tasmanian Prime Minister Tony Rundle said the massacre was 'beyond comprehension.' 'All Tasmanians and all Australians will be sick at heart tonight at this dreadful massacre,' he said late Sunday. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he was appalled at the senseless violence, and offered the federal government's condolences. Port Arthur, established as a penal settlement in 1830, was notorious for its security and its poor conditions. It was abandoned as a jail site in 1877, when its prisoners were transferred to the new Hobart jail. Much of the township has remained as a historic site and many of the convict-built structures, including a church, the prison hospital, powder magazine and mental asylum, have been restored. The local cemetery also contains the graves of many of the convicts. Today, Port Arthur thrives on the local dairy industry and tourism. Tasmania is Australia's second oldest and smallest state. It is separated from the mainland by the Bass Strait and is approximately 200 miles (320 km) southeast of Melbourne.