Some Hostages Flee as Standoff in Sydney Drags On – New York Times

Slide Show | Hostages Are Held Inside Cafe in Sydney, Australia Police officers surrounded a cafe in Sydney as the hostage-taking prompted evacuations of major landmarks.
By MICHELLE INNIS
December 15, 2014

SYDNEY, Australia — An assailant carrying a black flag with white Arabic script held hostages in one of this sunny city’s favored holiday haunts — a cafe specializing in chocolate drinks and desserts — through the day Monday, throwing Sydney’s center into lockdown and testing Australia’s heavily armed tactical response police, negotiators and the government’s readiness for a terrorist attack.

The assailant walked into the Lindt Chocolate Café, at the top of Sydney’s Martin Place in the city center, at around 9:45 a.m. local time, locking the door and capturing an unknown number of cafe workers and coffee and chocolate drinkers, some picking up a caffeine hit on their way to work, others taking a midmorning break. The cafe is as much a regular coffee stop for local office workers as it is a tourist draw.

Helicopters hovered over the city, the train network was temporarily stopped and strategic buildings — including the nearby Sydney Opera House, the New South Wales Parliament, the state library, law courts and the Reserve Bank were evacuated or shut down. Traffic on part of Sydney’s iconic Harbor Bridge was stopped.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed he had briefed the National Security Committee of the cabinet twice within six hours, and two ministers were returning from overseas, underscoring the seriousness of the siege.

Map | Hostages Held in Sydney Cafe

“This is a very disturbing incident,” Mr. Abbott said in a televised message from Canberra, the nation’s capital. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.

“We are a free, open and generous people, and today we have responded to this in character. Yes, it has been a difficult day. Yes, it has been a day which has tested us, but so far, like Australians in all sorts of situations, we have risen to the challenge.”

Five people, including two cafe employees, had fled by 7 p.m. local time, but it was not clear whether the assailant had allowed them to leave or they had escaped.

Stephen Loane, the chief executive of Lindt Australia, said that nine or 10 employees were inside the cafe when the siege started, along with an unknown number of customers. “Originally, we were thinking it was a holdup,” he said, but “by the time I got down there, the streets were blocked off and there was a different situation.”

Soon after the siege began, a commercial television network, Channel Seven, which has a nearby studio, showed footage of people, one wearing the Lindt Café uniform, pressed against the cafe window, holding up the black flag with white script.

The deputy police commissioner, Catherine Burn, said that the police had made contact with the armed person inside the cafe, and that they were working to resolve the standoff “peacefully.”

“Nobody has been harmed or injured at the moment,” she said. “We have been working through our negotiations to try to make sure that people inside” have “what they need so that they don’t become ill or injured.’’

Offices near the cafe had been evacuated and a number of streets were closed, the police said. The police also asked that people in offices nearby “remain indoors and away from open windows.”

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 did not say whether a terrorist group or an individual with links to terrorism was behind the siege.

But James Brown, a military analyst at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said, “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.”

Peter Jenkins, executive director of the Australian Strategic Police Institute and a national security expert, said there was the possibility that the offender was working alone, but added that this presented bigger problems for the police and security staff than tracking a terror organization.

“A self-radicalizing individual can be someone who is marginalized in society,” he said. “You have to rely on information from work colleagues or family. It’s hard to know much in advance about what might go on, if it is a lone wolf.”

However, the attack is eerily similar to one outlined earlier this year, when the police conducted counterterrorism raids across Sydney. The raids netted two people who were charged.

On Sept. 12, Mr. Abbott raised Australia’s terrorism alert level from medium to high after warnings from the nation’s security officials that there were increased threats to the nation.

Two weeks later, police officers in Melbourne shot dead a man — a known terror suspect — who lashed at them with a knife. Speaking to the Australian Parliament in late September, Mr. Abbott said that an Australian Islamic State operative had instructed his followers to pluck people from the street to conduct a demonstration killing. “All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera phone and a victim,” Mr. Abbott said.

Mr. Abbott’s warning followed a September statement from an Islamic State spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, to Muslims in Australia to carry out a lone-wolf attack.

Mr. Abbott, who heads the conservative Liberal Party, followed up his warning with legislation giving the police broader powers to arrest suspects and cracking down on the news media’s reporting. He had also responded quickly to President Obama’s appeal several months ago for support in the fight against the Islamic State, sending a squadron of fighter jets and several hundred Australian military personnel to the Middle East. This move was criticized by some analysts in Australia as likely to foment more anger from young Australian Muslim extremists.

Tobias Feakin, a national security expert with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that “there is a lot more noise to hear when there’s a network to track,” rather than an individual acting alone. “These people are using low-level technology, and anything can present as an opportunity. Individuals leave fewer tracks.”

He said that the flag pressed to the cafe window in the early stages of the siege was not an act exclusively associated with any one terrorist group, but that the flag had been flown on previous occasions by the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL

The commissioner of the New South Wales Police, Andrew Scipione, said at a news conference Monday night that no one had been injured during the siege, “and for that we are grateful.” He said that the five hostages that had left the cafe would work with the police through the night. He also asked that anyone in contact with the assailant should ask the assailant to remain in contact with the police.

The police continue to hold tightly information about how many hostages remained in the cafe, the motive for the siege and whether the offender is known to the police.

There have been a handful of attacks outside of the Middle East in recent months that have been carried out by people who have been linked to Islamic extremism.

In October, a man drove over two soldiers in a car crash in a Quebec strip mall, killing one and injuring the other. Canadian officials suggested the attacker was inspired by the Islamic State. Two days later, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a recent convert to Islam, fatally shot a soldier at the National War Memorial in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, then entered the Parliament building, where he was killed in a firefight with the police.

In May, three people were shot and killed at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A fourth victim died weeks later. The French police later arrested a 29-year-old French suspect who French and Belgian officials said had traveled to Syria to fight with radical Islamists and had links with the Islamic State.

Australian intelligence officials have estimated that 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 ending Oct. 31.

The United States Consulate General in Sydney, which is about a block from the cafe, was evacuated during the siege Monday. A spokeswoman for the United States Embassy in Canberra said that American officials did not yet know the nationality of the people being held.

Lindt posted a statement to its Facebook page thanking people “for their thoughts and kind support.” The statement added that, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families,” and that the matter was being dealt with by the authorities.

The Grand Mufti of Australia, Professor Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, and the Australian National Imams Council issued a joint statement assailing “this criminal act.”

Austin Ramzy contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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