Sydney: 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 and leading to evacuation of important buildings, including the Indian consulate.
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 — a public pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of Sydney, joining its parliamentary, legal and retail districts — Sydney Opera House, State Library, US consulate and all court houses here have been evacuated.
Andrew Scipione, the commissioner of the New South Wales police, said at a news briefing that an unknown number of hostages were being held in the cafe by a single armed person.
Just over five hours into the siege, five people were seen running out of the cafe. Two came out through the front door and one through the fire escape. It is still not known whether they were freed or escaped.
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, reports said.
The gunman is being described as being in his forties, wearing a black vest. Police said there were fewer than 30 people inside the cafe.
Indian Consulate in Sydney has been locked down and evacuated as a security measure following the incident.
Talking to PTI, Sydney Consul General Sunjay Sudhir said “because of security concerns we locked down our office at 12:00 pm and asked all our officers to go to places of safety.”
“Sydney Indian Consulate is 400 metres away from the Lindt cafe,” Sudhir said adding the Central Business District (CBD) is the area where many Indian Establishments like SBI, Bank of Baroda and Indian tourism office are located.
“We are in touch with the security agencies and have asked them specifically if any Indians were among the hostages…they have not told us about the nationality (of the hostages),” Sudhir said.
In New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said Indian consulate in Sydney is in touch with local authorities and all the staffers in the consulate are safe.
“Our consulate is in touch with local authorities. The External Affairs Minister has spoken to the High Commissioner in Canberra who is in touch with local organisations,” Akbaruddin said.
Police has established contact with the gunman and they are trying to resolve the matter peacefully.
Scipione said at this stage police were treated it as a hostage situation but were “on a footing consistent with a terrorist act”.
“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.