An armed gunman took an unknown number of people hostage in a chocolate shop and cafe in Australia's largest city on Monday, with the nation's prime minister saying it is unknown if it is "politically motivated."
Less than seven hours after the incident first erupted inside the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney during the height of the morning rush hour, five people had run from the building housing the cafe. The first three out were men who were followed later by two were women wearing aprons bearing the Lindt logo.
It was not clear whether they were hostages or whether they were escaping from another area of the building.
New South Wales (NSW) Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said the police "do not have any information that suggests that anybody is harmed at this stage." She also said police could not confirm how many people remained inside the Lindt cafe in Martin Place, but it was fewer than 30, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which also reported Burn saying, "Police negotiators have had contact and will continue to have contact."
Burn said the situation is now unfolding as a "negotiation" with the armed person.
She said the approach was to deal with the situation "peacefully." "It might take a bit of time but that is our approach," Burn said, according to the Herald. "We will be working into the night if this situation continues and we will be looking at arrangements for tomorrow." Workers in the cordoned-off area were asked to stay home Tuesday, indicating police believe the hostage drama could stretch into the next day.
Although the gunman has made demands, police have asked media to not report them.
Two hours earlier, NSW state Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police had not made direct contact with the gunman, did not know his motivation and were not sure how many people were being held inside.
"We have not yet confirmed it is a terrorism-related event — we're dealing with a hostage situation with an armed offender and we are dealing with it accordingly," Scipione said.
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, raising fears in a nation on heightened security alert since September when authorities said they thwarted a plot to snatch a random citizen for a public beheading on a flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Scipione said "people are looking at" the flag, according to The Guardian. "We’re working with our partner agencies to better determine what it is we’re dealing with there."
Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in the nation's capital, Canberra that "We don't know whether this is politically motivated, although obviously there are some indications that it could be."
Abbott said the National Security Committee of Cabinet met to be briefed on the situation.
"The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves," Abbott said. "And that's why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual."
Abbott called the incident "deeply concerning," after armed police closed off a part of Martin Place, home to the Reserve Bank of Australia, commercial banks and close to the NSW state parliament.
Seven Network television news staff 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. "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 added.
Thousands of workers across Sydney were sent home early and some of the city's major buildings evacuated, including the Opera House, the State Library, Channel Seven, the NSW parliamentary executive offices and criminal courts, and several city legal chambers, according to local media. The U.S. consulate, which is in the cafe area, was also evacuated, according to an embassy spokeswoman.
The Australian National Imams Council, commenting on the siege at a Sydney cafe on Monday, said it "condemns this criminal act unequivocally."
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.
Zain Ali, the head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at the University of Auckland, said it was difficult to read the message on the flag in the cafe window because media images showed only the lower part of the flag. But he believed it was the Shahada, or declaration of faith, largely because a black flag with white writing in a contemporary context often contains that message. He said he could make out the word "Muhammad."
Australia has been on high alert for attacks by citizens returning from fighting in the Middle East, having raised its threat level to high and undertaken a series of high-profile raids in major cities.
Abbott responded to U.S. President Barack Obama’s appeal for support in the fight against ISIL by sending fighter jets and military personnel to the Middle East.
Some Islamic leaders argued the Australian Muslims, a 500,000 minority in a Christian-majority population of 23 million, are being unfairly targeted. Abbott has denied this.
In September, the government elevated it’s terrorism threat level to the second-highest warning, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying the increase from “medium” to “high” on a four-tier scale was made on the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.
At the time, the domestic spy agency’s chief said the terrorist threat level had been rising in Australia over the past year, particularly in recent months, mainly due to Australians joining Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq.
The government raised Australia's terror warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State 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 Islamic State leader in Syria to behead a random person in downtown Sydney.
ISIL has threatened Australia in the past. In September, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio message urging so-called "lone wolf" attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia. Al-Adnani told Muslims to kill all "disbelievers," whether they be civilians or soldiers.
Al Jazeera and wire services