Gunman takes several people hostage at Sydney cafe

Sydney: An armed man today took undisclosed number of people hostage at a popular cafe here and displayed an Islamic flag with Arabic script in the window, sparking a security alert in Australia.

Authorities sealed off surrounding streets, evacuated people from buildings, and suspended rail services following the incident at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place, in the heart of the city’s business district. Martin Place is a public pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of Sydney, joining its parliamentary, legal and retail districts.

Television footage showed people inside the cafe with their hands pressed against the window holding the black flag known as Shahadah, a prayer spoken in mosques daily, and not a flag specific to the Islamic State. Lindt Australia executive says there are about 10 staff and up to 30 customers trapped in the cafe. Police declined to comment on the number of hostages involved.

Andrew Scipione, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, said that there was only a single gunman involved. “I can confirm for you that we have an armed offender in the premises holding an undisclosed number of hostages in the city, in the Martin Place area,” he said. However, he has made clear that police are not in direct contact with the hostage taker.

“My advice is we haven’t had contact with the armed offender,” he said. “We’re still not in a position to determine where the individual is from”. Scipione said at this stage police were treated it as a hostage situation but were “on a footing consistent with a terrorist act. We are working as long as we need to to bring this to a peaceful outcome,” he said.

Martin Place, Sydney Opera House, State Library and all court houses here have been evacuated. Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a meeting of his security inner circle in his cabinet to discuss the response to the hostage-taking.

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