Dec. 15, 2014: A police runs along a street close to a cafe under siege at Martin Place in the central business district of Sydney, Australia. (AP)
Dec. 15, 2014: This image taken from video show people holding up what appeared to be a black flag with white Arabic writing on it, inside a cafe in Sydney, Australia, on Monday. (AP/Channel 7)
Part of Australia’s largest city was on lockdown Monday afternoon after an armed gunman took several people hostage and forced two people to hold what appeared to be a black flag with white Arabic writing on it in the store’s window.
Four hours after the incident began at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney, New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police had not made direct contact with the gunman, did not know his motivation and were not sure how many people were being held inside.
“We have not yet confirmed it is a terrorism-related event — we’re dealing with a hostage situation with an armed offender and we are dealing with it accordingly,” Scipione said.
Estimates of the number of people held in the cafe have varied wildly. Chris Kenny, an associate editor and columnist for The Australian newspaper, left the cafe moments before the gunman entered. He estimated that there were approximately a dozen customers when he was inside, and between three and four staff. However, Lindt Australia CEO Steve Loane has said that there are between 40 and 50 customers and employees inside the store.
Sky News Australia reported that one of the hostages had contacted a radio broadcaster twice during the siege. Ray Hadley said he had spoken to a ‘remarkably calm’ male hostage and that the hostage taker had demanded the hostage speak live on the radio, a demand Hadley refused.
“I told the hostage it would not be in his best interest or my best interest to allow that to happen because I’m not a trained negotiator, I don’t have any expertise in this, there are people who will talk to both the hostages and the person holding the hostages and they will be knowing what to do,” Hadley told 2GB.
Police were first called to the scene at approximately 9:45 a.m. local time Monday (5:45 p.m. ET Sunday). The cafe is located in Martin Place, a plaza in the heart of the city’s financial and shopping district that is packed with holiday shoppers this time of year.
Hundreds of police flooded into the area, streets were closed and offices evacuated. The public was told to stay away from the area, which is home to the state premier’s office, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of the nation’s largest banks. The state parliament house is a few blocks away, and the Sydney headquarters of the Seven television network is also nearby.
Television footage shot through the cafe’s windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up what appeared to be a black flag with white Arabic writing on it.
Zain Ali, the head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at the University of Auckland, said it was difficult to read the message because media images showed only the lower part of the flag. But he believed it was the Shahada, or declaration of faith, largely because a black flag with white writing in a contemporary context often contains that message. He said he could make out the word “Muhammad.”
Ali said the Shahada translates as “There is no deity of worship except God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It is considered the first pillar of Islam’s five pillars of faith, and has been used by groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State but wasn’t invented by them, Ali said.
“We don’t know whether this is politically motivated, although obviously there are some indications that it could be,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in the nation’s capital, Canberra. “We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours, there are people who would wish to do us harm.”
A police spokeswoman said no injuries had been reported from the incident. Heavily armed officers were lined up outside the cafe, and a man with a backpack inside the cafe could be seen walking back and forth in front of the glass doors.
“Police have been in attendance and have controlled the situation from very early this morning,” said Scipione, the police commissioner. “We are at this stage continuing to secure and make sure that we are doing all we can to bring this to a peaceful outcome.”
Abbott said the National Security Committee of Cabinet met to be briefed on the situation.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” Abbott said. “Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society — nothing should ever change that. And that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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