A gunman was holding an undisclosed number of hostages inside a chocolate shop in Sydney, Australia, police said Monday. Five of the hostages ran out of the cafe in the afternoon, and police said there was no indication that anyone had been injured.
Three men first ran out of side exits toward armed police. An hour or so later, about 5 p.m. local time (1 a.m. ET), two women ran out. Authorities wouldn’t say whether the hostages had escaped or were freed by the gunman, but they dashed out of the cafe in apparent panic, suggesting they weren’t freely released.
Catherine Burn, deputy police commissioner in New South Wales state, wouldn’t discuss the gunman’s possible motive, although she said police had made contact with the hostage taker.
She said: “Our approach is to resolve this peacefully. We are working through this methodically to make sure nobody is injured.”
Burn added that Facebook and Twitter were being monitored by investigators trying establish “what he may want.”
Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said he couldn’t rule out a terrorist attack and said officers were responding on “a footing consistent with a terrorism event.”
Scipione and Burn wouldn’t speculate on the number of people being held, although Burn said it was no more than 30. Police closed off a number of streets in the area and evacuated nearby office buildings, “making sure we can secure and resolve this matter to a peaceful outcome,” Scipione said. The U.S. Consulate in Sydney was evacuated and all U.S. personnel had been accounted for, the State Department told NBC News.
“We are being tested today, but we met that test head-on,” New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said. “It is something we must deal with, we will deal with. We are dealing with it.”
The Lindt Chocolate Cafe is in Martin Place, a busy tourist, transportation and shopping district that is home to several major banks, including the Reserve Bank of Australia, as well as the state Parliament. The nearby Sydney Opera House canceled Monday night’s performances.
Police said the takeover was reported about 9:45 a.m. (5:45 p.m. ET Sunday). At one point, a black flag resembling the ISIS standard was shown in the shop’s window.
The flag appeared to be the Tawhid Banner, with the writing of the Muslim Shahada on it, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” said Laith Alkhouri, director of research and analysis for Middle East and North Africa at Flashpoint Global Partners, a private security firm.
The flag “is not exactly the ISIS banner,” he said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – which has declared a caliphate covering parts of Syria and Iraq. NBC News terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, said the banner was frequently used by Jabhat Al-Nusra and a host of other armed Islamist groups in the region.
Chris Kenny, associate editor of the national newspaper The Australian, wrote on the paper’s website that he’d been in the cafe just five minutes before the gunman took over.
“As police quickly swarmed and cleared the area, I turned to see a man against the window, facing out with his hands raised,” Kenny wrote. “At first I was relieved, thinking this was the gunman responding to police – but soon came the awful realisation that customers were being forced against the windows.”
Within just 10 minutes, “car-loads of police were on the scene, wearing bullet-proof vests and some with handguns drawn,” he wrote.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged Australians to go about their business as usual, saying “the whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves.”
“I want to assure people that the ordinary business of government must go on, and it will go on,” Abbott said in a nationally televised address.
“This is a very disturbing incident,” he said. “I can understand the anxieties of the Australian people at a time like this, but our thoughts and prayers must go out to the individuals undergoing – I can think of nothing more terrifying, more distressing.”
Read more at NBC NEWS.