At least five people ran out of a Sydney coffee shop where at least one gunman took an unknown number of people hostage at the height of Monday morning rush hour, as police maintained a vigil and officials said they were negotiating to end the crisis peacefully.
Two people inside the cafe have been seen holding up a flag believed to contain an Islamic declaration of faith on a rotating basis, with some 15 hostages taking turns at the window, according to Australian media reports.
The gunman has used hostages to call media to make demands, which Australian police have asked not be published. References to the demands earlier included in this report have been removed.
Videos of hostages reciting demands in front of a Islamic flag were also posted online, but police asked media to not disseminate the clips. The videos seemed to indicate the demands were not being met.
As night fell, the lights in the cafe went out and hostages were huddled in one area, Australian media reported.
As the drama dragged into its 10th hour, police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said negotiators were talking with the gunman. Officials had no information to suggest anyone had been harmed.
Burn told media that police were treating the situation as a hostage negotiation and working to conclude it peacefully.
“There is speculation about what he might want but we have to deal with him at the level of police negotiation,” Burn said.
Police also said they are operating on a terror footing.
Seven Network TV news staff members watched the gunman and hostages for hours from a fourth-floor window of their Sydney offices, opposite the cafe.
The gunman could be seen pacing back and forth past the cafe’s four windows. Reporter Chris Reason 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, agonizing 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 realized those five had got out. He started screaming orders at the people, the hostages who remain behind,” he added.
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, and Scipione said he was being treated for a pre-existing condition.
The developments came hours after the gunman entered the Lindt Cafe 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, at about 9:45 a.m. local time.
Hundreds of police flooded into the area, streets were closed and offices evacuated after the standoff began. The public was told to stay away from Martin Place, 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.
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 what appeared to be a black flag with white Arabic writing on it.
Hours later, three men were seen bolting from the cafe just before 4 p.m. local time (7 a.m. in Israel), and an hour later two women also ran from the coffee shop toward police.
Burn earlier confirmed that three people “have now emerged from the location” where the hostage crisis was unfolding.
“We do not have any information that suggests that anybody is harmed at this stage,” she said.
“The first thing that we are doing is making sure that they are OK. We will then establish who they are and then we will continue to work with them,” Burn said.
She added that the number of hostages being held was less than 30, but did not have an exact number.
All five people were seen on live video footage bolting out of the door past heavily armed police and then disappearing around a corner.
Two of the men came out the front door and one man, wearing a staff apron, out the fire exit in the back of the shop.
Later two women, both wearing staff aprons, ran toward police from a separate direction, both with terrified looks on their faces.
It is not yet clear if the escapees were released or managed to escape. Australia’s Channel 9 news reported initial indications pointed to the five escaping and not being released, but police refused to confirm.
Moments after the siege began, the hostages were forced to display an flag with Arabic writing at the windows of the shop.
The flag appeared to contain the shehada, or Muslim declaration of faith, which is frequently found on flags belonging to jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front and Somalia’s al-Shabab.
The lifting of the flag raised fears that the attack was related to Islamic terror. However, Abbott said the motivation behind the incident was not yet clear, “although there are obviously some indications” it was politically motivated.
“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,” Abbott said in a press conference in Canberra Monday, hours after the incident began.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Army Radio he was in contact with Australian authorities and had offered to help.
Police have said they were dealing with a hostage crisis involving an armed man, but also did not rule out the possibility that it is a terror attack.
On Monday, the US consulate located near the cafe was evacuated and the State Department issued a security warning to American citizens.
The Israeli embassy in Australia published a tweet expressing Israel’s sympathy for the hostages.
According to the CEO of the cafe, there were believed to be between 40 to 50 people inside the shop at the time of the attack, including 10 staff members.
The hostages were being made to stand with their hands up against the windows of the shop over the course of the day.
This is an alleged image of the ringleader in the hostage situation in #Sydney
— Conflict News (@Conflicts) December 15, 2014
Australia’s New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione confirmed that police were on a terror footing and they they were not ruling out that it could be an ongoing terror attack.
New South Wales’ Premier Mike Baird said that Australians were “being tested today in Sydney. The police is being tested, the public is tested. Whatever the test, we will face it head on. We will remain a democratic, civil society.”
— Bianca Britton (@biancabritton) December 14, 2014
— erienne lette (@eriennelette) December 14, 2014
The incident began at 9:45 a.m. local time Monday when a call came through to emergency services that a hold-up at the Lindt Cafe in the city was underway.
The cafe is located inside Martin Place, a pedestrian mall in the city’s busy business and banking district. In September, Australian police said they uncovered a major terrorist plot in which Islamic State lone-wolf attackers were ordered to abduct and behead Australian civilians as retribution for Australia’s membership in the international coalition against the extremist jihadist group.
The Islamic State has repeatedly urged followers to carry out attacks in countries that are part of the US-led campaign to stop the group’s advances in Iraq and Syria.
Australia has estimated about 60 of its citizens are fighting for the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. Another 15 Australian fighters had been killed, including two young suicide bombers.
The government has said it believes about 100 Australians are actively supporting extremist groups from within Australia, recruiting fighters and grooming suicide bomber candidates as well as providing funds and equipment.
Security was tightened around Jewish community buildings in the city in the wake of the Martin Place incident.