MELBOURNE, Australia — Two police officers and a bystander were killed in a shootout that erupted during an investigation into a missing-person case in the Australian state of Queensland, the police said on Tuesday, with one official describing the officers’ death as a “ruthless” execution.
Three other people, believed to have been the attackers, were later shot and killed by the police, officials said.
Much was still unknown about the circumstances surrounding the killings, which occurred on Monday at a remote rural property in the Western Downs area. But at a news conference in Chinchilla, Queensland, the state police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, called the events “complex and horrendous.”
“This event is the largest loss of police life we have suffered in a single incident in many years,” Commissioner Carroll said, adding, “It is going to take us a number of days, if not weeks, to unravel every single aspect of the scene.”
The shootings occurred after four police officers went to the property in Wieambilla, a tiny community about a three-hour drive west of Brisbane, to investigate a report of a missing person, Nathaniel Train, a former school principal from New South Wales, according to the authorities.
The officers jumped the fence and were immediately met by a “hail of gunshots,” Ian Leavers, the president of the Queensland Police Union, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Officers Matthew Arnold, 26, and Rachel McCrow, 29, were hit and fell to the ground, where they were shot and killed by three people on the property, he said in a statement. Mr. Leavers called it a “ruthless, calculated and targeted execution.”
A third officer, Randell Kirk, 27, who was wounded, was able to escape and call for reinforcements. A fourth officer, Keeley Brough, 28, who had joined the police force just eight weeks ago, took cover in long grass, Mr. Leavers said.
“They lit the grass on fire to try and coax her out,” he said. “She actually believed that she was either going to be shot or she was going to be burned alive.”
Officers Brough and Kirk were hospitalized. Information on their conditions was not immediately available.
A man who lived nearby, Alan Dare, 58, went to investigate the grass fire and was “shot in the back in cold blood,” Mr. Leavers said.
Two men and a woman who are believed to have shot the officers and Mr. Dare were later killed by the police, officials said. The three were heavily armed, Commissioner Carroll said, adding, “There’s considerable weaponry involved in what took place there.”
Officials did not release the names of the three people killed by the police. But a spokesperson for the New South Wales Department of Education said on Tuesday that one of its former employees was among the deceased. They did not identify the person as Mr. Train, the missing principal, and officials did not mention him in their account of the shootout.
In a post on Twitter on Monday night, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia described the day’s events as “heartbreaking.” He added, “My condolences to all who are grieving tonight — Australia mourns with you.”
Multiple fatal shootings are extremely rare in Australia, which imposed strict gun laws after a mass shooting in Tasmania in 1966, in which 35 people were killed. Twenty-two members of the police force, out of roughly 58,500 sworn officers, were killed between 2010 and 2021, according to research from Bond University in Queensland. Of those 22, five officers were killed by armed offenders.
The shooting in Queensland took place close to a small white bungalow, which the Australian news media reported had been owned by two of the attackers, one of whom had been reported missing a year earlier. Aerial footage from the aftermath of the Queensland shootings showed what appeared to be smoke still rising from a scrubby area of remote forest, as well as a burned-out police vehicle.
The Western Downs region has a population of about 35,000 people spread over 15,000 square miles, roughly the size of Switzerland, or twice the size of Massachusetts.