An armed man today took undisclosed number of people hostage at a popular cafe here and displayed an Islamic flag with Arabic script in the window, sparking a security alert in Australia.
Authorities sealed off surrounding streets, evacuated people from buildings, and suspended rail services following the incident at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place, in the heart of the city’s business district.
Martin Place is a public pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of Sydney, joining its parliamentary, legal and retail districts.
Television footage showed people inside the cafe with their hands pressed against the window holding the black flag known as Shahadah, a prayer spoken in mosques daily, and not a flag specific to the Islamic State.
Lindt Australia executive says there are about 10 staff and up to 30 customers trapped in the cafe. Police declined to comment on the number of hostages involved.
Andrew Scipione, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, said that there was only a single gunman involved.
“I can confirm for you that we have an armed offender in the premises holding an undisclosed number of hostages in the city, in the Martin Place area,” he said.
However, he has made clear that police are not in direct contact with the hostage taker.
“My advice is we haven’t had contact with the armed offender,” he said. “We’re still not in a position to determine where the individual is from”.
Scipione said at this stage police were treated it as a hostage situation but were “on a footing consistent with a terrorist act”.
“We are working as long as we need to to bring this to a peaceful outcome,” he said.
Martin Place, Sydney Opera House, State Library and all court houses here have been evacuated.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a meeting of his security inner circle in his cabinet to discuss the response to the hostage-taking.
“This is obviously a deeply concerning incident but all Australians should be reassured that our law enforcement and security agencies are well trained and equipped and are responding in a thorough and professional manner,” Abbott said.
“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 at a short media briefing held in Canberra, Australia’s capital.
“There are people, even in a society such as ours, who would wish to do us harm”.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” he said.
“Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society and nothing should ever change that and that is why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.”
Abbott said security agencies had not detected any particular plots but the raised alert level meant there were people in Australia with the “intent and capability” to carry out a terror attack.
Hundreds of police had been mobilised, including those specially trained for terrorist threats, tactical officers and neogtiators to general duties officers and traffic police handling road closures.
Thousands of workers across the city have been sent home early and some of the city’s major buildings evacuate.