Five people emerge from Lindt Cafe in Australian city’s financial district amid negotiations with hostage-taker.
by Al Jazeera
Five people have escaped from a cafe where a man has an unknown number of hostages in the heart of Sydney’s financial and shopping district .
Two people inside the cafe were earlier seen holding up a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith that has often been used by armed groups.
The first three people ran out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney’s Central Building District six hours into Monday’s hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterwards.
Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.
It was not clear exactly how many people remained inside the cafe at Martin Place, a plaza that is packed with holiday shoppers this time of year.
The hostage-taker is reported to have conveyed some demands when an Australian media network interviewed some of the hostages over phone.
Some media networks have announced that they are complying with a request from New South Wales Police not to report the demands.
Andrew Scipione, New South Wales Police commissioner, said police did not know the hostage taker’s motivation.
“We have not yet confirmed it is a terrorism-related event,” he said.
“We’re dealing with a hostage situation with an armed offender.”
As the drama dragged into its 10th hour, NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said negotiators were talking with the hostage-taker.
Officials had no information to suggest anyone had been harmed, although a hospital said it was treating a man in satisfactory condition.
Pacing back and forth
Television video 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.
Seven Network television news staff watched the hostage-taker and hostages for hours from a fourth floor window of their Sydney offices, opposite the cafe.
The man could be seen pacing back and forth past the cafe’s four windows. Reporter Chris Reason, a reporter for Seven Network, said the man carried what appeared to be a pump-action shotgun, was unshaven and wore a white shirt and a black cap.
Network staff counted about 15 different faces among hostages forced up against the windows.
“The gunman seems to be sort of rotating these people through these positions on the windows with their hands and faces up against the glass,” Reason said in a report from the vantage point.
“One woman we’ve counted was there for at least two hours – an extraordinary, agonising time for her surely having to stand on her feet for that long.
“Just two hours ago when we saw that rush of escapees, we could see from up here in this vantage point the gunman got extremely agitated as he realised those five had got out. He started screaming orders at the people, the hostages who remain behind.”
St Vincent’s hospital spokesman David Faktor said a male hostage was in satisfactory condition in the hospital’s emergency department. He was the only one of the freed hostages to be taken to a hospital.
Hundreds of police flooded into the area, streets were closed and offices evacuated. The public was told to stay away from Martin Place, site of 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.
“This is a very disturbing incident,” Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, said.
“It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.”
Terror threat warning
The Australian government raised the terror warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
Counterterror law enforcement teams later conducted dozens of raids and made several arrests in Australia’s three largest cities – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
One man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an ISIL leader in Syria to behead a random person in downtown Sydney.
ISIL, which now holds a third of Syria and Iraq, has threatened Australia in the past.
In September, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, an ISIL spokesperson, issued an audio message urging “lone wolf” attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia.
Lindt Australia posted a message on its Facebook page on Monday thanking the public for its support.
“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 company wrote.