- Gunman has been identified as Man Haron Monis, U.S. sources say
- Indications are he’s acting alone, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say
- The hostage taker is reportedly demanding a phone call with the Australian Prime Minister
- Images show hostages pressed against a window, holding a flag with Arabic on it
Sydney (CNN) — [Breaking news update at 10:22 a.m.]
Video footage aired early Tuesday in Australia showed police officers trying to break into a building where several hostages had been held.
[Breaking news update at 10:21 a.m.]
Gunfire could be heard in the vicinity of the cafe in Sydney where hostages are being held. At least one person has been shot, Australian state broadcaster ABC reported. Ambulances have arrived at the scene.
[Breaking news update at 10:19 a.m.]
More hostages have emerged from the cafe in Sydney, Australia’s state broadcaster ABC reported. There is “a lot more activity” at the scene, the news agency said.
[Original Story, posted at 9:53 a.m.]
Sydney gunman reportedly demands ISIS flag as some hostages escape
(CNN) — Australia, and the world, looked on with dread as a gunman holding hostages inside a darkened Sydney cafe demanded an ISIS flag and a phone call with Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Hundreds of police officers, including snipers, surrounded the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney’s central business district shortly after the gunman took over the building at 10 a.m. Monday (6 p.m. ET on Sunday).
Chilling images from Australian media on Monday showed people, believed to be hostages, with their hands pressed against the cafe’s windows. They were holding up a black flag with Arabic writing on it reading, “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”
Five hostages sprinted out of the cafe toward heavily armed police officers several hours into the standoff, sending the gunman into an agitated tirade, according to an Australian reporter.
Police: Hostage safety is our top priority
Australian Police: We have had contact
MAP: Sydney CBD
Chris Reason, a correspondent for CNN affiliate Seven Network, said the gunman became “extremely agitated” when he realized what had happened and “started screaming orders” at the remaining hostages.
Reason said he could see the gunman pacing past the cafe’s windows from his vantage point at the network’s nearby offices. He described the man as unshaven, wearing a white shirt and black cap and carrying a shotgun.
The gunman made his demands for a flag and phone call through hostages who contacted several media organizations, CNN affiliate Sky News Australia reported.
Some had also reportedly posted messages to social networking sites and the YouTube online video service. Police urged media early Tuesday not to show the videos.
The gunman has been identified as Man Haron Monis, an official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN.
Also known as Sheikh Haron, he pleaded guilty in 2013 to writing letters to Australian service members saying they were “Hitler’s soldiers,” according to Australian media reports.
He is probably acting alone and does not appear to be part of a broader plot, additional U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources say.
Beyond the demands for the flag and phone call, precisely what he wants remained murky late Monday.
As night fell, Reason said the cafe’s lights had been turned off, plunging the interior into “complete darkness.”
Before some of the hostages had fled, Seven Network reported that at least 13 people were being held at the cafe, but police declined to say how many were in there. New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said it was fewer than 30.
The incident left Australians shaken.
“We are doing all we can to set you free,” New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said at a news conference Monday, directing his comments to the hostages and their loved ones.
Abbott called the incident “profoundly shocking.”
Bustling area eerily quiet
Police barricaded off streets and evacuated buildings near the cafe, bringing an eerie quiet to a district typically buzzing with pedestrians and vehicles.
“The police presence here is like nothing the center of Sydney has ever seen,” Luke McIlveen, editor of the Daily Mail Australia, told CNN on Monday.
Abbott: Incident is disturbing, terrifying
Police: ‘We are being tested today’
The Martin Place train station was shut down, according to police. They urged people to stay away from the area, but some local office workers gathered at the scene to try to find out what was going on.
The buildings evacuated included the U.S. Consulate General, spokeswoman Alicia Edwards said. All personnel have been accounted for, although it’s not known whether there are any U.S. citizens among the hostages.
U.S. President Barack Obama has been briefed on the situation.
The company that runs the cafe, Lindt Chocolate Cafe Australia, said it was “deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families.”
‘That could be me’
The hostages appeared to include staff and customers who were taken captive as commuters were heading to work Monday morning in the Martin Place area, where big institutions like the Reserve Bank of Australia are located.
One employee of the cafe, who was due to work a later shift Monday, was deeply shaken after seeing footage of some of her colleagues pressed against the window.
“That could be me, right there, standing at that window, standing there, holding that flag, being told not to move,” Kathryn Chee, 25, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It’s just horrifying.”
Chris Kenny, an editor at The Australian newspaper, said he was at the cafe Monday morning. He left shortly before the siege started.
“As police quickly swarmed and cleared the area, I turned to see a man against the window, facing out with his hands raised,” he wrote in his account of the incident. “At first I was relieved thinking this was the gunman responding to police — but soon the awful realization the customers were being forced against the windows.”
A cafe worker who asked for safety reasons to be identified by his first name, Nathan, said he almost became one of the hostages.
Nathan said he arrived at the cafe in the morning, but when he tried to go in, some of his co-workers told him it was closed for the day.
“At this point, I’m thinking something is definitely off,” he said. “I could see a hand and what looked like half a gun. I only saw part of his (the gunman’s) body.”
He said the cafe had both its doors locked, which is unusual at that time.
Muslim leaders condemn hostage taking
The writing on the flag in the window stoked fears that the crisis in Sydney could be linked to Islamic extremists. Australia, which is part of the international coalition fighting ISIS in the Middle East, said in September that it had foiled a plot by Islamic militants to carry out a public execution.
Commissioner Scipione said that it wasn’t yet clear whether the situation at the cafe was a terrorist event, but that police are on “a footing that would be consistent with a terrorist alert.”
He said the crisis was contained to the area around the cafe.
“We are only at this stage dealing with one location,” Scipione said. “We are not at this stage concerned about any other.”
Police said they are also monitoring social media amid reports that some of the hostages were posting updates from inside the cafe.
Muslim leaders in Australia condemned the hostage taking, calling it “a criminal act.”
“Such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam,” the Grand Mufti of Australia and the Australian National Imams Council said in a statement on Facebook.
Leaders elsewhere also condemned the incident and expressed concern.
“Again irreligious extremists hold innocent people hostage and hijack Islam,” Queen Rania of Jordan said on Twitter.
Responses from U.S., UK, Twitter
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he’d been briefed on the situation.
“It’s deeply concerning and my thoughts are with all those caught up on it,” he said on Twitter.
The U.S. State Department also spoke out: “Our hearts and prayers go out to those who are being held hostage,” the agency tweeted.
And out of concern that an anti-Islamic backlash to the incident could endanger innocent Muslims, Twitter users organized a campaign to find traveling companions for people who feared for their safety.
“The #illridewithyou hashtag makes me so proud to be Australian,” Twitter user “Mifrah Mahroof” said Monday. “Thanks for the support everyone.”
CNN’s Anna Coren reported from Sydney, Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Dana Ford, Hilary Whiteman, Euan McKirdy, Chieu Luu, Elizabeth Joseph and Khushbu Shah also contributed to this report.
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