SYDNEY, Australia — Helicopters hovered over central Sydney and Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a meeting with his security advisers on Monday after one or more armed individuals took hostages in a Sydney cafe and displayed a black flag with Arabic script in white in the window.
Police officers surrounded the cafe in the central business district where the hostages were pressed against the window holding the black flag. The number of hostages was unclear, but several held a flag with writing that appeared to be the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith.
“We don’t yet know the motivation of the perpetrator, we don’t know whether this is politically motivated, although obviously there are some indications that it could be,” Mr. Abbott said at a short media briefing held in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “There are people, even in a society such as ours, who would wish to do us harm.”
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” he said. “Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society and nothing should ever change that and that is why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.”
Police officers take positions outside the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney, Australia, where hostages were being held on Monday.
Mr. Abbott described the siege as “a very disturbing incident.”
“Our thoughts and prayers must, above all, go out to the individuals who are caught up in this,” he said. “I can think of almost nothing more distressing or terrifying than to be caught up in such a situation. Our hearts go out to those people.”
He said he met with the National Security Committee of cabinet, which includes the defense minister, David Johnston, and Attorney General George Brandis.
A police spokesman confirmed that officers were called to the Lindt Chocolate Café, in Sydney’s Martin Place, a major shopping and pedestrian thoroughfare, at around 10 a.m.
A commercial television network, Channel Seven, which has a studio located nearby the cafe, showed footage of people wearing Lindt uniforms inside the cafe.
The police said in a statement that they were attempting to contact those inside. Nearby offices had been evacuated and a number of streets closed, it said. The police also asked that people in offices bordering Martin Place “remain indoors and away from open windows.”
The police have shut down parts of the city’s transportation system, and closed off the mall area. They would not confirm how many people were being held hostage inside the cafe, saying that they were “dealing with an armed incident.”
“A police operation is underway,” a spokeswoman for the New South Wales Police Force said. “It involves both local police and tactical or specialist police commands,” which would include an antiterrorism squad.
Fire crew and other emergency services have been sent to the central business district, and helicopters could be seen and heard flying over the city.
The police would not provide further details. But live television footage showed shoppers and office workers gathered some distance from the cafe, behind shelters, and television news showed heavily armed police officers in the area.
The police would not confirm whether a terrorist group or individual with links to terrorism was behind the siege.
But James Brown, a military analyst at the Lowy Institute, said that “Someone in that shop wants us to know they have an Islamic link.”
He added: “They could be doing it for any one of a number of reasons, it could be a terror-related incident. It is unclear what outcome they want.”
The hostage incident comes amid growing anxiety in Australia over Islamic terrorism.
Mr. Abbott responded quickly to President Obama’s appeal for support in the fight against Islamic State, sending a squadron of fighter jets and several hundred Australian military personnel to the Middle East.
The move was criticized by some analysts in Australia as likely to foment more anger from young Muslim extremists who appeared to have threatened to conduct a random beheading in Sydney.
The Australian government, a strong supporter of the alliance with the United States, ordered police forces to conduct sweeping counter terrorism raids in Sydney suburbs in September against young Muslim males suspected of being in contact with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The raids netted just two people who were charged, but the tough stance against the militant group was popular among the public. Mr. Abbott, who heads the conservative Liberal Party, followed up with legislation giving police broader powers to arrest suspects and cracking down on media reporting.
Australian intelligence officials have estimated about 70 Australian citizens, typically disaffected young Muslim men from immigrant families, have joined the Islamic State. The passports of about 100 others have been canceled for fear they might do the same, they said.
The Australian Federal Police made seven arrests for terrorism offenses in the 12 months to Oct 31, 2014.
Very little was known about the person or people responsible for the siege. Mr. Brown said that it was clear from television footage of officers in the street that the police were heavily armed and wearing protective clothing. “Police are ready for the threat of being shot at,” he said.
The United States Consulate General in Sydney, which is about a block away from the cafe, was evacuated along with other offices in the area. A spokeswoman for the United States Embassy in Canberra, said that American officials did not yet know the nationality of the people being held inside the cafe.
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