Hostages the No. 1 priority: Police chief
A LONE gunman kept terrified staff and customers captive in a downtown Sydney cafe last night, brandishing an Islamic flag, as five of his hostages managed to flee for their lives.
Police, including paramilitary officers, cordoned off several blocks around the Lindt chocolate cafe as negotiators tried to defuse one of the biggest security scares in Australia in decades.
Snipers and a Swat team took up positions around the cafe and police helicopters flew overhead in an area that houses several government and corporate headquarters.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened a national security meeting to deal with the "disturbing" development in Australia's biggest city.
The government said there was no clear motivation but a terror expert told Australia's Seven News that the flag belongs to militant group Jabah Al-Nusra, also known as Al-Nusra Front.
"We are doing all we can to set you free," New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said, using a televised evening news conference to address the hostages directly. "We will be looking after your safety as our No. 1 priority."
Earlier, he had told reporters that "we have moved to a footing that would be consistent with a terrorist event" although he declined to comment on a motive, the number of assailants or hostages.
Some six hours into the siege, three men emerged from the popular cafe and ran for their lives. Around an hour later, two distraught women also fled. It was not clear if they escaped or were released.
One was barista Elly Chen, whose sister Nicole said on Facebook: "Yessss I finally see you. I'm so glad you're safe!!!!"
About 15 hostages could still be seen inside the cafe, said Chris Reason, a reporter at Channel Seven, whose office is opposite the cafe. "From inside Martin Place newsroom we can see (a) gunman is rotating hostages, forcing them to stand against windows, sometimes two hours at a time," he tweeted.
Among those left inside was an employee of Indian IT giant Infosys, the company said, as the leaders of India, Britain and Canada tweeted their concern. United States President Barack Obama was briefed on the crisis, the White House said.
Negotiators "have had contact and continue to have contact" with the armed man holding the hostages, NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said. "We do not have information to suggest that anyone is harmed at this stage."
The hostage-taker, reportedly armed with a shotgun, made a series of demands through the Australian media, but they were retracted after the police requested they not be made public.
The scene of the drama, Martin Place, is Sydney's financial centre and houses several prominent buildings, including the New South Wales Parliament, the US consulate, the country's central bank and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
Many banks and businesses in the central business district closed early due to the scare and people were told to avoid the area.
At the nearby Sydney Opera House, where the police had swept the area earlier yesterday following talk of a bomb threat, evening performances were cancelled.
"It's sad to think this is my home and that it could happen anywhere," said onlooker Rebecca Courtney.
The hostages were taken in the morning, just minutes before the police announced a man had been arrested in Sydney on alleged terrorism offences.
The police said they did not believe the matters were related.
More than 70 Australians are believed to be fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At least 20 have died.