Dec 15, 2014 3:39 AM

5 people escape Sydney cafe in hostage crisis

The Associated Press

SYDNEY (AP) Five people escaped from a Sydney cafe where a gunman took an unknown number of hostages during Monday morning rush hour. Two people inside the cafe were earlier seen holding up a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith that has often been used by extremists, raising fears that a terrorist incident was playing out in the heart of Australia's biggest city.

The first three people ran out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney six hours into the hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterward. Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.

It was not clear exactly how many people remained inside the cafe at Martin Place, a plaza in the heart of the city's financial and shopping district that is packed with holiday shoppers this time of year. Many of those inside the cafe would have been taken hostage as they stopped in for their morning coffees.

New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police did not know the gunman's motivation.

"We have not yet confirmed it is a terrorism-related event," Scipione said. "We're dealing with a hostage situation with an armed offender." He asked any media that might be contacted by the gunman to urge him to talk directly to police.

As the drama dragged into its 10th hour, police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said negotiators were talking with the gunman. Officials had no information to suggest anyone had been harmed.

Television video shot through the cafe's windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.

The Shahada translates as "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger." It is considered the first of Islam's five pillars of faith, and is similar to the Lord's Prayer in Christianity. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the Shahada in their own black flag.

Seven Network television news staff watched the gunman and hostages for hours from a fourth floor window of their Sydney offices, opposite the cafe.

The gunman could be seen pacing back and forth past the cafe's four windows. Reporter Chris Reason said the man carried what appeared to be a pump-action shotgun, was unshaven and wore a white shirt and a black cap.

Network staff counted about 15 different faces among hostages forced up against the windows.

"The gunman seems to be sort of rotating these people through these positions on the windows with their hands and faces up against the glass," Reason said in a report from the vantage point. "One woman we've counted was there for at least two hours an extraordinary, agonizing time for her surely having to stand on her feet for that long."

"Just two hours ago when we saw that rush of escapees, we could see from up here in this vantage point the gunman got extremely agitated as he realized those five had got out. He started screaming orders at the people, the hostages who remain behind," he added.

St. Vincent's hospital spokesman David Faktor said a male hostage was in satisfactory condition in the hospital's emergency department. He was the only one of the freed hostages to be taken to a hospital, and Scipione said he was being treated for a pre-existing condition.

Hundreds of police flooded into the area, streets were closed and offices evacuated. The public was told to stay away from Martin Place, site of the state premier's office, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of the nation's largest banks. The state parliament house is a few blocks away.

"This is a very disturbing incident," Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. "It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation."

Lindt Australia posted a message on its Facebook page thanking the public for its support.

"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 company wrote.

The government raised Australia's terror warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group. Counterterror law enforcement teams later conducted dozens of raids and made several arrests in Australia's three largest cities Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. One man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an Islamic State leader in Syria to behead a random person in downtown Sydney.

The Islamic State group, which now holds a third of Syria and Iraq, has threatened Australia in the past. In September, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio message urging so-called "lone wolf" attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia. Al-Adnani told Muslims to kill all "disbelievers," whether they be civilians or soldiers.


Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.


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