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)
Five people have escaped from a cafe in central Sydney where an armed gunman had taken several people hostage Monday and forced two people to hold up a black flag bearing Islamic slogans written in Arabic in the store’s window.
Three men were seen running from a fire exit of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe approximately six hours after the hostage situation began at 9:45 a.m. local time (5:45 p.m. ET Sunday). Shortly afterward, two women, one after another, sprinted from the cafe and into the arms of heavily armed police. Both were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees. One of the men who escaped also appeared to be an employee.
New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner for Specialist Operations Catherine Burn said that police negotiators had made contact with the unidentified gunman, though it was not clear how the hostages escaped. Burn also said that fewer than 30 people were held inside the cafe, though she did not give a precise number.
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 said later that there were between 40 and 50 customers and employees inside the store.
Burn said that the first priority was the wellbeing of the people who escaped, after which police would question them to gain more information about the situation inside. She added that police believe that there is only one gunman and had no further information about a possible motive.
“We do not have any information that suggests that anybody is harmed at this stage,” she said.
St. Vincent’s hospital spokesman David Faktor said a male hostage was in a satisfactory condition in the hospital’s emergency department. He was the only one of the freed hostages to be taken to a hospital.
“He’s in a satisfactory condition, so he’s sitting up and that’s all we can give out. We can’t talk about the reason for his presentation,” Faktor said.
The standoff has closed off part of the central business district in Australia’s largest city. 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. The Sydney Opera House was also briefly evacuated after a report of a suspicious package, but has since re-opened.
The U.S. Consulate, located just south of the cafe, was also evacuated and a warning issued urging Americans in Sydney to “maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.” A White House official told Fox News that President Obama had been briefed on the situation.
“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,” New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said early Monday afternoon. However, Scipione did say that police were operating “on a footing consistent with a terrorist act.”
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 Radio.
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 a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.
Zain Ali, the head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at the University of Auckland, 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 Qaeda 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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