Updated at noon Eastern time: Police in Sydney said early Tuesday the siege was over after armed officers were seen storming the cafe and gunshots were heard. Medical workers evacuated several casualties, but it was unclear if the hostage taker, identified as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian, was among them.
The financial and commercial heart of Australia’s largest city was in lockdown Monday night after an armed gunman took an unknown number of people hostage in a cafe.
Hundreds of police, many of them heavily armed, cordoned off the area in Sydney which was packed with Christmas shoppers and evacuated nearby buildings including the state parliament and the American consulate. About six hours into the siege, three people were seen running from the building housing the cafe. Two more followed about an hour later. It is not clear whether they escaped or were released. About a dozen people are believed to remain in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe.
Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott stopped short of calling the hostage taking a terrorist attack but said it appeared to be politically motivated. “This is a very disturbing incident,” Mr Abbott said. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.”
As dusk fell and commuters began leaving the central business district along gridlocked highways, police said they had started negotiating with the gunman. “Our plan, our only goal tonight and for as long as this takes, is to get those people that are currently caught in that building, out of there safely. That remains our number one priority and nothing will change,” New South Wales police commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters.
At present, almost nothing is publicly known about the situation, beyond that there is at least one gunman involved. A number of media outlets said they had received phone calls from the hostages conveying the gunman’s demands but were not broadcasting them at the request of police.
The media have published images showing some hostages holding against the window a black and white flag with a general expression of Islamic faith, the Shahada, printed on it: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” Although the Shahada is a general tenet of the faith, it has been co-opted by various jihadist groups.
Terror threat raised
Dozens of buildings in Sydney were evacuated after police received information that up to four bombs had been left around the city. The Lindt Cafe is located a few blocks from the state parliament, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of Australia's largest banks.
The situation comes just three months after security agencies raised the country’s terror threat level to high. Shortly afterwards a man armed with a knife murdered a policeman in Melbourne in what was believed to be an Islamic State-inspired attack.
Australia has sent fighter jets to join the US-led coalition conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq, prompting calls from militants for supporters to carry out “lone wolf” reprisal attacks. Australia’s Parliament recently passed a tough set of anti-terror laws including restrictions on media reporting and new powers to confiscate passports.
Professor Greg Barton of Monash University in Melbourne, who studies regional terrorist organizations, said the hostage taker’s use of a flag bearing the Shahada, suggests he is responding to that call by Islamic State to carry out attacks.
“The new twist is the use of hostage taking. This is a very worrying development because these things tend to get copied,” says Professor Barton. “The big question that hangs in the air is whether this just one sporadic lone wolf attack or is it the beginning of a cascading wave of lone wolf attacks. No one knows the answer to that."
World leaders briefed
President Obama was briefed on the situation as world leaders including Stephen Harper of Canada, David Cameron of Britain, and Narendra Modi of India conveyed messages of support.
Local Muslim leaders were swift to condemn the hostage taking with Australia's Grand Mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, saying the Islamic community was devastated by the incident. "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," he said in a statement.
Justin Hastings, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Sydney told ABC radio that the Sydney siege bore similar hallmarks to recent attacks in Ottawa and Montreal carried out by individuals apparently acting alone.
“They are attacks that send a very strong message that there are terrorists among us and they’re very difficult to stop precisely because there is not much planning involved."
More than 70 Australians are believed to be fighting for Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria and a similar number have had their passports cancelled to prevent them from traveling to conflict zones in the Middle East.
Last week security officials said at least 20 have died and there are growing concerns about youths becoming radicalized and mounting attacks at home.