Rob Griffith/AP Photo
Five people have escaped from a popular Sydney cafe after they had been taken hostage — with others still held inside as neighboring blocks remain locked down, authorities said.
Two people inside the cafe were seen holding up a flag with Arabic writing on it that has been used by extremists in the past — raising fears that a terror attack was unfolding in Australia’s largest city.
Video also emerged early in the standoff showing people being held inside the shop with their hands held in the air.
The first three people who fled sprinted out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe about six hours into the standoff, while two women — wearing aprons — frantically ran from a side exit and into the arms of heavily-armed SWAT team police officers waiting outside.
It remains unclear exactly how many people remain inside the cafe.
New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, speaking at a news conference as the situation stretched into the night, said authorities remain committed on ensuring that the hostages are safely released.
“We have the very best negotiators in the world on the job,” Scipione said.
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said people should proceed as usual on Tuesday morning, but should work from home if their offices are located within an exclusion zone near the standoff.
Police negotiators have been in contact with the armed hostage-taker, but the motive remains unclear, New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said.
Burn said authorities are monitoring all forms of communication, including social media, for any information that might help resolve the standoff.
Earlier in the day, Scipione said there is at least one armed person holding the hostages in the cafe, who have been kept there against their will since 9:45 a.m. local time on Monday.
In a statement on Facebook, Lindt said, “We would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and kind support over the current situation at the Lindt Chocolate Café at Martin Place. We are deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families. The matter is being dealt with by the authorities and we are waiting for any updates from them.”
Meanwhile, Muslim leaders in Australia condemned the attack on Facebook, saying they “condemn this criminal act unequivocally and reiterate that such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam.”
“We don’t yet know the motivation of the perpetrator,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at a news conference earlier in the day.
“We don’t know that this is politically motivated although there is some indications that it could be. We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours, there are people who would wish to do us harm.”
Several nearby offices were evacuated as a precaution, police said.
People inside buildings in the neighboring streets were directed to remain indoors and stay away from open windows.
“There’s a real sense of alertness, awareness, and a bit of shock to be honest,” said Lisa Martin, who works in an office nearby the cafe and was in lockdown. “To know that there are so many people just having coffee and a chocolate are now in a hostage situation is really sobering.”
Earlier, video that aired on Channel 9 Australia showed police with weapons drawn, their attention focused on the cafe.
Police said emergency services had responded and streets and the area around the cafe had been closed.
“New South Wales Police and the Australian Federal Police are currently responding to a reported hostage-taking incident in Martin Place in Sydney,” Abbott said.
He said the country’s National Security Committee of Cabinet has convened for briefings on the situation.
“This is obviously a deeply concerning incident but all Australians should be reassured that our law enforcement and security agencies are well trained and equipped and are responding in a thorough and professional manner,” he said.
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