SYDNEY: Australian police hoped for a peaceful end to a hostage crisis that unfolded Monday at a cafe in Sydney's central business district as police cordoned off the area around the venue where a flag with Arabic black and white writing was held up to a window.
"We can confirm we have an armed offender holding an unknown number of hostages," NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said in a live television address. " We are still determining motive behind cafe hostage-taking; we are not dealing directly with the hostage taker."
"We will do all we can to bring this to a peaceful outcome."
Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot said the hostage crisis at the cafe was "disturbing" in a live television address.
"The whole point of politically-motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. 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," he said.
Earlier reports had said a gunman told authorities he had devices all over the city and demanded to speak to Abbott, local media said. The Sydney Morning Herald said a man armed with a gun held up the shop, but other media reports said there was more than one attacker.
Mr Abbott has convened the National Security Committee for emergency briefings.
Airlines said on Monday that flights are landing and taking off normally at Sydney Airport, but a diversion is in place around the city’s central business district where the hostage crisis is taking place.
Martin Place in the central business district was shut down as scores of police surrounded the Lindt Chocolat Cafe where the hostages are being held. Reports said as many as 20 people were in the cafe.
The parent company of the Lindt cafe issued a statement. "We are deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families. The matter is being dealt with by the authorities and we are waiting for any updates from them." Taxi app Uber offered "free rides out of the CBD to help Sydneysiders get home safely."
Initially, witnesses reported hearing loud bangs in the morning that sounded like gun shots. Patrick Byrne, a producer at Channel Seven whose newsroom is opposite the cafe, said staff at the television station watched the situation unfold.
"We raced to the window and saw the shocking and chilling sight of people putting their hands up against the panes of glass at the cafe," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"This was just extraordinary."
OPERA HOUSE, OBAMA, MODI
Separately, Australian authorities said earlier thy were dealing with an "incident" at Sydney's Opera House, police said Monday. Scipione however said there were no other related incidents to the cafe hostage crisis.
US President Barack Obama has been briefed about the situation, a White House official said Sunday. Lisa Monaco, the president's top counter-terrorism advisor, had spoken to Obama about events in the Australian city, the White House official said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also commented. "The incident in Sydney is disturbing. Such acts are inhuman and deeply unfortunate. I pray for everyone's safety."
The US Consulate General Sydney also warned American citizens to avoid the area until further notice.
Several large companies in the city centre of Sydney have shut offices, including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch and Nomura, which are based in the Governor Macquarie Tower, a few hundred metres from the cafe.
In September, the Australian government raised its terror threat level and police conducted large-scale counter-terror raids across the country. Only two people were charged despite 800 officers being involved in the operation.
More than 70 Australians are estimated to be fighting for Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. At least 20 have died and there are mounting concerns that increasing numbers of youths are being radicalised and could mount attacks at home.
Journalist Chris Kenny, who was in the Lindt cafe just before the siege began, said he understood the automatic glass sliding doors had been disabled. "One woman said she tried to go into the shop just after I came out with my takeaway coffee but the doors wouldn't open," he told the newspaper he works for, The Australian.
"So obviously whoever is doing this has disabled the automatic glass sliding doors to stop anyone else going in and she said immediately she could see there was a weapon. "She mentioned it being taken out of a blue bag and people were straight away asked to put up their hands."