, SYDNEY, Australia, Dec 15 – Five people fled a central Sydney cafe Monday where a gunman is holding terrified hostages after displaying an Islamic flag at the window, triggering a lockdown in an area home to government and corporate headquarters
A square in the heart of the Australian city was evacuated as hundreds of armed police surrounded the Lindt chocolate cafe, where a flag – black with white Arabic writing – was held to a window by customers.
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.”
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 women also fled.
It was not clear if they escaped or were released.
New South Wales state deputy police commissioner Catherine Burn said negotiators “have had contact and continue to have contact” with the armed person holding the hostages, but they did not know the motivation for the siege.
“We do not have information to suggest that anyone is harmed at this stage,” she said, adding that the number of hostages “is not as high as 30” as some reports had suggested. READ: Hostages held inside Sydney cafe, Islamic flag held up.
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.
State police commissioner Andrew Scipione said “we have not yet confirmed this is a terrorism-related event,” despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott convening a national security meeting to deal with the “disturbing” development.
“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, while urging people to get on with their daily lives.
The White House said US President Barack Obama had been briefed about the crisis.
Patrick Byrne, a producer at Channel Seven whose newsroom is opposite the cafe, 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.”