A New South Wales (NSW) police spokeswoman said officers were called to the Lindt chocolate cafe in Sydney, Australia at 9:44 a.m. on Monday to respond to a hostage situation in progress.
Witnesses say a middle-aged man wearing a black bandana with Arabic writing walked into the cafe with a bag containing a gun and took control of the cafe. Hostages were reportedly told to close their eyes, hold their hands up, and face the window. Lindt employees were seen holding a black flag in the front window with the words “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
7 News in Sydney, which has a studio across the street from the cafe, originally reported that there were 13 hostages and “at least one gunman.” They are now saying there may be as many as 50 people inside the building. They are reporting that a gunman is using a woman as a human shield.
A witness who owns a kiosk near the cafe told the Sydney Morning Herald, “It was about 10 past 10. They [police] came out running like a madman and said close the shop! Get out!”
Buildings in the area have been evacuated and NSW police are directing people in the vicinity of the hostage situation to remain indoors and to stay away from windows.
The Lindt cafe is located at Martin Place, the scene of a foiled terror plot by Omarjan Azari. In September, Azari was arrested after it was discovered that he was plotting to behead a random victim and then cover the body with an Islamic flag.
In addition to the September terror plot, many financial institutions are housed in Martin Place buildings adjacent to the Lindt cafe.
The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that it is not an Islamic State flag, “but is an Islamic flag that has been co-opted by jihadist groups.”
“The flag appears to be a Shahada flag, which represents a general expression of faith in Islam, but has been co-opted by various jihadist groups,” the newspaper reported. “That means it doesn’t help confirm or rule out that the hostage-takers’ affiliation is with Islamic State or any other group.”
The government has convened a meeting of the National Security Committee. It has been warning about the possibility of a terrorist attack for months.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned after a series of September terror raids that all that is needed for an Islamic State terror attack is a “knife, iPhone and a victim.”
The prime minister gave a brief statement early Monday afternoon saying, “We don’t yet know the motivations” of the perpetrator (singular) and “this is an unfolding situation.”
“This is a very disturbing incident,” Abbott said, “our thoughts and prayers must above all go out to the individuals that are caught up in this.”
He said police have made contact with the attacker and said the NSW police will begin providing operational updates shortly.
Abbott assured the public that the ordinary business of the Australian government will go on and encouraged people to go about their normal business.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” Abbott said.