, SYDNEY, Australia, Dec 15 – A lone gunman kept terrified staff and customers captive into Monday night in a downtown Sydney cafe, brandishing an Islamic flag, as five of his hostages managed to flee for their lives.
The pre-Christmas siege of the Lindt chocolate cafe triggered a security lockdown in an area of Australia’s biggest city that houses several government and corporate headquarters, as hundreds of armed police surrounded the site.
The government said there was no clear motivation but the flag appeared to be one commonly used by jihadist groups bearing the shahada, or profession of faith in Islam. It said: “There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his messenger.”
More than 40 Australian Muslim groups jointly condemned the siege and the use of the flag, which they said had been hijacked by “misguided individuals that represent no-one but themselves”.
“We reject any attempt to take the innocent life of any human being or to instil fear and terror into their hearts,” they said in a statement.
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 carry out “lone wolf” attacks.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a national security meeting to deal with the “disturbing” development.
Some six hours into the siege, three men emerged from the popular cafe and ran for their lives, two from the front door and one from an emergency exit. Around an hour later two distraught women also fled. It was not clear if they escaped or were released. READ: Five flee as hostages held in Sydney cafe.
One was barista Elly Chen whose sister Nicole said on Facebook: “Yessss I finally see you. I’m so glad you’re safe!!!!”
Among those left inside was an employee of Indian IT giant Infosys, the company said, as the leaders of India, Britain and Canada tweeted their concern. US President Barack Obama was briefed on the crisis, the White House said.
Negotiators “have had contact and continue to have contact” with the armed man holding the hostages, New South Wales state deputy police commissioner Catherine Burn said. “We do not have information to suggest that anyone is harmed at this stage,” she added.