Siege over after Sydney police storm cafe where hostages held
WATCH ABOVE: Gunfire erupts as swat moves in on hostage situation in Australia. Viewer discretion is advised.
TORONTO – The hostage situation in Sydney, Australia is over after police stormed the cafe where a gunman had been holding an unknown number of people hostage for more than 16 hours.
READ MORE: Sydney siege over after police storm cafe
Several hostages were seen fleeing the cafe before a police tactical unit deployed flash bangs and entered the building.
Local media reported at least three people were killed during the standoff, including the gunman.
The suspect has been identified as a 50-year-old Iranian resident of Sydney by several media outlets. Reports suggest the man has a criminal past, including having been charged with accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and a separate sexual assault conviction. He also reportedly has a record of sending hate letters to families of Australian soldiers killed overseas.
Global News has not independently confirmed the suspect’s identity.
Nearly six hours into the siege, three men managed to flee from the building at the heart of the hostage crisis.
About an hour and half later, two women, both employees of the shop ran out.
Police said there was no indication anyone had been hurt.
Catherine Burn, deputy police commissioner in New South Wales state, wouldn’t say whether they had escaped or were freed by the gunman.
As the siege entered its 12th hour Monday night, basic questions remained unanswered. Police refused to say how many hostages were inside the cafe, what they believed the gunman’s motives might be, whether he had made any demands or whether the hostages who fled the cafe escaped or were released.
“I would like to give you as much as I can but right now that is as much as I can,” New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said. “First and foremost, we have to make sure we do nothing that could in any way jeopardize those still in the building.”
“Our only goal tonight and for as long as this takes is to get those people that are currently caught in that building out of there safely,” he said.
Much of the surrounding area was cordoned off, with buildings having all been evacuated or placed on lockdown.
IN PHOTOS: Images of the police operation underway in Sydney
One of the people who had been placed on lockdown in the nearby Westin Hotel lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a number of years and is currently in Australia on a working holiday.
Thomas Bishop spoke to Global News over the phone, describing the frantic scene playing out.
“People are down in the lunchroom watching everything unfold on TV. Police are rushing around everywhere. The phones were not working for awhile because they jammed all the phone signals.”
WATCH: Former Winnipegger Thomas Bishop is in Sydney under lockdown at a nearby hotel and describes the scene as a hostage situation unfolds.
New South Wales police posted updates to the public on twitter.
Live television footage showed several people inside the Lindt Chocolat Café standing with their hands pressed against the glass. Dozens of heavily armed police, including members of a SWAT team, could be seen surrounding the shop with their weapons drawn.
The video footage showed people with their hands up against a window, some holding a black flag with white Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it. While the flag appeared at first glance similar to those used by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, it is not the same flag.
Zain Ali, the head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at the University of Auckland, told The Associated Press it was difficult to read the message on the banner because part of it was obscured.
The Shahada translates as “There is no deity of worship except God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God” according to Ali. He said it has been used by groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State but wasn’t invented by them.
Channel 10 news said it received a video in which a hostage inside the cafe had relayed the gunman’s demands. The station said police requested they not broadcast it, and Scipione separately asked all media that might be contacted by the gunman to urge him instead to talk to police.
Infosys, India’s second-largest IT services provider, confirmed that one of its employees was among the hostages. The staffer’s family was informed, it said.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported a woman raised the initial alarm at about 9:45 a.m. Monday when she saw a man with a gun.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said during a press conference that it was unclear if the incident was politically motivated.
“We don’t know whether this is politically motivated, although obviously there are some indications that it could be,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in the nation’s capital, Canberra. “We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours, there are people who would wish to do us harm.”
Abbott said the National Security Committee of Cabinet met to be briefed on the situation.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” Abbott said. “Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society – nothing should ever change that. And that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.”
WATCH: Witness describes scene at cafe where hostage situation is underway
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a tweet saying “Canada’s thoughts and prayers are with our Australian friends.
— Stephen Harper (@pmharper) December 15, 2014
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird tweeted that his office is watching the unfolding event closely.
— John Baird (@HonJohnBaird) December 15, 2014
Police closed off part of Martin Place – home to the Reserve Bank of Australia, commercial banks and close to the New South Wales state parliament. Trains and buses in the normally bustling area had also been stopped.
The U.S. consulate issued a statement warning its citizens “of a security incident involving at least one armed person at Lindt Chocolat Café in Martin Place in Sydney. New South Wales and Australian Federal police are addressing the threat. Please avoid the area around Martin Place until further notice.”
One terrorism expert said the situation appeared to be that of a “lone wolf” making his own demands, rather than an attack orchestrated by a foreign jihadist group.
-With files from The Associated Press and Adam Frisk
© 2014 Shaw Media