An armed gunman was holding what could be dozens of people hostage at a chocolate shop and cafe in Sydney, Australia, Monday in an ongoing drama that began about 9:45 a.m. local time and was continuing into the afternoon. Authorities confirmed a police operation was “underway” at a Lindt chocolate shop in Martin Place, a pedestrian mall in the heart of the financial district and not far from the Sydney harbor. The CEO of Lindt said there were 10 staff members and up to 30 customers in the cafe as police swarmed the area. TV reported that someone purporting to be calling from inside the cafe made contact with authorities and was making demands, including that he be allowed to meet with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and that the man was said to have warned police he had several dangerous “packages” scattered around the area. But a top police official said “at this point we have had no direct contact with the armed offender.” At a press conference around 1 p.m. Sydney time, Abbott suggested the incident was “politically motivated” and designed to “scare people out of being themselves.” He said, “I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.” The prime minister also said thoughts and prayers were with the individuals in the shop, and that he could not “think of anything more destressing, more terrifying.”
The situation apparently began when a suspicious-looking man walked into the shop. Some local media said some hostages were seen standing with their hands up at the windows in the popular Lindt chocolate shop, which has two or three entrances. There also was a black flag with what appeared to be white Arabic writing on it being held up in a window-believed to be possibly an Islamic religious flag or perhaps the Black Standard, a jihadist flag. It read, “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” Sydney’s landmark Opera House was reported in lockdown, apparently after officials noticed a suspicious package there. The New South Wales Supreme Court offices, as well as the province’s parliamentary offices, were evacuated, along with some other buildings.
Staff in the Lindt shop, wearing aprons, could be seen with their hands on the windows, and heavily armed tactical police officers had guns drawn outside the cafe. There are State Government agencies in the same building and police shut down traffic in a wide perimeter surrounding the incident. Trains around the area were stopped and roads were blocked and train passengers ordered off trains and back onto the streets in Kings Cross. Martin Place was completely shut down during what is a busy time for Christmas shoppers and kids on school holidays. Abbott’s office released a statement saying the prime minister had convened the National Security Committee of the Cabinet for briefings on the situation. “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,” the statement said. New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said at a press conference that “we have been tested today” but “whatever the test we will face it head on.” Read more at News.com.au.