Hostages held in Sydney cafe, Islamic flag displayed
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A gunman is holding some 10 people hostage inside a café in central Sydney, where an Islamic flag has been displayed in the window. Three people ran out of a fire escape in the building but it was not clear if they were hostages.
Six hours into the crisis police said negotiators had been in contact with the gunman but refused to speculate on his possible motivation.
Television footage earlier showed three people bolting out of a fire escape past heavily armed police and then disappearing around a corner. It was not immediately clear if they were hostages or if they were escaping from another area of the building.
New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn declined to say how many were still being held in the café but said it “is not as high as 30”.
"We do not have any information that suggests that anybody is harmed at this stage,'' Burn added.
The potential development came six hours after the siege began inside a downtown Sydney chocolate shop and café at the height of Monday morning rush hour, sparking a security lockdown in an area home to government and corporate headquarters.
Martin Place was evacuated as scores of armed police surrounded the Lindt chocolate cafe, with TV pictures showing a flag black with white Arabic script held to a window by hostages.
It appears to be the shahada, or profession of faith in Islam, and says: “There is no god but Allah; Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah.”
“We have moved to a footing that would be consistent with a terrorist event,” New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters in Sydney.
FRANCE 24's Irris Makler said that there were unconfirmed reports of police contact with a hostage. "There seems to be a suggestion the police have a line in to someone inside who’s a hostage," she reported from Sydney.
The nearby Sydney Opera House was also cleared by police, apparently over a suspicious package.
POLICE SURROUND CAFE (© INSTAGRAM / jakiel/)
Amid the crisis mobile phone coverage in the city centre was badly affected, with users reporting difficulties in receiving and making calls.
'Outside the Australian experience'
Australia has been on high alert after the government raised concerns that citizens who have fought alongside jihadists in Iraq and Syria could return home radicalised and capable of carrying out attacks.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a national security meeting to deal with the “disturbing” developments, suggesting only one person was responsible for the Lindt café incident.
“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,” he said.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves.
“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,” he added.
“This is right outside the Australian experience,” Makler reported “It’s a big shock for the authorities. This is in the lead up to Christmas, businesses are rushing to close down for the summer holidays. Sydney police and Australia in general are really being tested.”
Reports said between 13 and 40 people were in the Lindt café. Several were seen with their arms in the air.
Patrick Byrne, a producer at Channel Seven whose newsroom is opposite the café, said staff at the television station watched the situation unfold.
“We raced to the window and saw the shocking and chilling sight of people putting their hands up against the panes of glass at the cafe,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “This was just extraordinary.”
Journalist Chris Kenny, who was in the Lindt café just before the siege began, said he understood the automatic glass sliding doors had been disabled.
“One woman said she tried to go into the shop just after I came out with my takeaway coffee but the doors wouldn’t open,” he told the newspaper he works for, The Australian.
“So obviously whoever is doing this has disabled the automatic glass sliding doors to stop anyone else going in and she said immediately she could see there was a weapon.
“She mentioned it being taken out of a blue bag and people were straight away asked to put up their hands.”
Martin Place is Sydney’s financial centre and houses several prominent buildings, including the New South Wales parliament, the US consulate, the country’s central bank and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
US President Barack Obama has been briefed about the crisis in Sydney, a White House official said.
The incident came just minutes before police announced a man had been arrested in Sydney on alleged terrorism offences.
They said the 25-year-old was seized as part of “continuing investigations into the planning of a terrorist attack on Australian soil and the facilitation of travel of Australian citizens to Syria to engage in armed combat”.
It was not clear if the matters were related.
The crisis comes after the government in September raised its terror threat level and police conducted large-scale counter-terror raids across the country in response to an intelligence report that warned of a planned, violent, attack by Islamic State group agents. Only two people were charged despite 800 officers being involved in the operation.
More than 70 Australians are estimated to be fighting for Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. At least 20 have died and there are mounting concerns that increasing numbers of youths are being radicalised and could mount attacks at home.
The Australian National Imams Council said on Monday it “condemns this criminal act unequivocally” in response to the siege.
The joint statement with the Grand Mufti of Australia said that “such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam,” noting they awaited further information about the identity and motivations of the perpetrators.
The Grand Mufti and the council pledged their “full support and solidarity with the victims and their families and aspire to a peaceful resolve to this calamity”.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)