Hostage Crisis in Central Sydney
Heavily armed police fanned out across downtown Sydney on Monday after an unidentified man took an undisclosed number of people hostage at a café in the central business district of Australia’s largest city. Five hostages fled the premises in the afternoon
Many buildings, including the famed Opera House, have been evacuated
Heavily armed police fanned out across downtown Sydney on Monday after an unidentified man took an undisclosed number of people hostage at a café in the central business district of Australia’s largest city at around 9:45 am local time.
Hostages were seen displaying a black and white flag in the window of the Lindt café in Martin Place — a major commercial precinct usually crowded with office workers and tourists and, at this time of year, Christmas shoppers.
The flag bore, in Arabic text, what was thought to be the shahada, or Muslim testimony of faith. It translates as, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
The flag, which is commonly flown by Islamist terrorist groups, has sparked fears that a terrorist attack is unfolding. However, Sydney police have not said if it is a terrorist attack but confirm they have made contact with the perpetrator.
Media reports emerged around eight hours into the standoff that the perpetrator had made telephone contact with two Australian TV networks and one radio station using hostages as intermediaries. Reports suggested he had two demands: A flag representing the Jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and a telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Australia’s paramount figure on Islamic law, the Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, issued a statement “unequivocally” condemning the action. He said the Muslim community was “devastated” by the incident and said such actions are “denounced in part and in whole in Islam.”
New South Wales (NSW) police commissioner Andrew Scipione said at a press briefing on Monday: “I can confirm for you that we have an armed offender in premises holding an undisclosed number of hostages in the Martin Place area.
“We want this matter resolved peacefully and we will do all we need to ensure that.”
Three hostages were filmed exiting the premises early Monday afternoon with another two seen fleeing less than an hour later. All five are currently being debriefed by police.
NSW deputy police commissioner Catherine Burn said she does not believe there are more than 30 hostages. She also didn’t think anyone had been harmed so far.
Buildings in the area, including the famed Sydney Opera House and the U.S. consulate, have been evacuated, with office workers taken to nearby Hyde Park. Martin Place train station, one of Sydney’s busiest, has been closed, as have major nearby roads.
“Sometimes here in Australia you think something like this would never happen so it’s pretty shocking to see,” said Kristina Ryan, who works nearby at Circular Quay. “It’s been really frustrating with the lack of information and how much longer can they expect us to just sit here without understanding why this is happening? I think that’s really adding to the fear people are feeling in the city.”
Ryan said that fear was amplified as she and her co-workers watched as authorities evacuated the Opera House.
U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed overnight on the crisis.
“There are lots of government buildings around. It’s a very busy place, especially on a Monday morning,” Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, tells TIME.
The unfolding hostage crisis comes more than two months after Australian authorities foiled a terrorist plot by local ISIS partisans, who were reportedly planning to behead members of the public in Martin Place.
Days later, on Sept. 21, forces affiliated with the ISIS released a 42-minute audio recording calling on followers to attack non-Muslims in Australia. The call to arms appears to have been made in retaliation for Canberra’s deployment of military personnel and fighter jets to the Middle East to fight in the international coalition against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and Iraq.
According to Jones, officials believe that up to 60 Australian nationals and residents are believed to be currently fighting in jihadist ranks in the Middle East. Dozens are believed to have already returned to Australia.
“They haven’t been prosecuted, but we don’t know at this stage if they’ve come back with an added intent to continue the fight here in Australia,” says Jones. “It’s hard to know.”
As darkness fell on Monday evening, a crowd of around 200 people remained milling around the scene. “Everyone was quite calm,” says Victor Domni, who works at Macquarie Bank directly across from the Lindt cafe and was among the first to be evacuated this morning. “I wasn’t in a position to do anymore work so I was ready to go home. I’m quite hesitant to go into work tomorrow because it’s quite scary.”
“We’ve seen this on the news happening in other places and it’s finally hit home so it’s a bit shocking,” he adds.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged his fellow Australians to remain coolheaded.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society,” he said on Monday morning. “Nothing should ever change that.”
— With reporting by Courtney Subramanian / Sydney
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