At least a dozen people are being held hostage by a gunman at a cafe in Sydney, Australia.
The Lindt Cafe in Sydney’s central business district is currently surrounded by hundreds of police officers, including armed snipers, after an armed gunmen took control of the cafe at 09:44 local time (22:44 GMT).
Three people have been seen running from the cafe and hiding behind armed police, who are covering the exits of the cafe with their guns drawn at 13:35 (04:35 GMT).
In a statement, New South Wales Police said:
“Police are dealing with an armed incident and specialist officers are attempting to make contact those inside a cafe.
“Some nearby offices have been evacuated as a precaution. Anyone else in the area encompassing Hunter, George, Elizabeth and Macquarie streets bordering Martin Place is directed to remain indoors and away from open windows. Anyone in the vicinity but outside that area is free to leave their buildings.
“Police urge members of the pubic to remain calm and note that an appropriate police presence is in place.”
Trains and buses that would normally operate in the district have been suspended, although earlier reports that the airspace over Sydney had been suspended appears to have been unfounded.
Police have said that there is only one gunman, but it remains unclear how many hostages have been taken in the incident. Lindt Australia CEO Stephen Loane has been quoted in local media as saying that there would normally be ten members of staff and up to 30 customers in the cafe at this time of the morning.
The gunman forced two women inside the cafe to hold up a black flag with Arabic writing, believed to be the Islamic declaration of faith of “Shahadah“, which translates as “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”.
However, the hostage taker not issued any demands or made any statements of support for Islamist groups such as the Islamic State.
The Grand Mufti of Australia has issued a statement condemning the attack:
“The Grand Mufti and the Australian National Imams Council condemn this criminal act unequivocally and reiterate that such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam.
“His Eminence the Grand Mufti, the Australian National Imams Council and the Muslim community express their full support and solidarity with their victims and their families and aspire to a peaceful resolve to this calamity.”
In a televised statement, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said:
“We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours, there are people who would wish to do us harm, that’s why we have police and security organisations of the utmost professionalism that are ready and able to respond to a whole range of situations and contingencies including this situation that we are now seeing in Sydney.
The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. Australia is a peaceful, open, and generous society. Nothing should ever change that and that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.”
An image of the gunman has been captured through the windows of the cafe
— Jack Moore (@JFXM) December 15, 2014
Ray Hadley of Sydney’s 2GB 873 radio station is reported to have spoken to the gunman live, but refused to broadcast the conversation as he is not a trained negotiator and called on the attacker to free the hostages.
Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said that he was “not ruling out” the possibility of a terrorist incident, but they have not made direct contact with the gunman and so his motives cannot be confirmed.
On Facebook, Lindt Chocolate Cafe Australia said:
“We would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and kind support over the current situation at the Lindt Chocolate Café at Martin Place. We are deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families. The matter is being dealt with by the authorities and we are waiting for any updates from them.”
Elsewhere, police evacuated Sydney Opera House after a suspicious package was found, but it was later confirmed not to be a threat.