Downtown Sydney was put on lockdown Monday after an armed gunman walked into a busy café, taking hostages and forcing them to display an Islamic flag.
Fearing a jihadist attack, Australian police, including heavily armed paramilitary officers, closed off several blocks around the Lindt chocolate café as negotiators attempt to defuse the situation with the gunman.
Snipers and SWAT teams took up positions around the café, located in the heart of Sydney’s financial district, as police helicopters flew overhead.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Army Radio that he was in contact with Australian authorities and have offered help to Australian officials. The Israeli embassy in Australia published a tweet, expressing Israel’s support during the shocking situation.
Jewish institutions across Australia were put “in lockdown” on Monday as stricter security measures were imposed, Australian officials said.
Since the attack began mid-morning in Australia, around 9:45 am local time, at least five hostages have escaped. In a dramatic turn and on live television, several of the hostages were seen bolting out of the café into the protection of armed police.
While it remains unclear how many hostages remain in the café, initial reports put the number between 30 and 40. Police reported that the number is much lower.
Located across from a television studio, hostages inside the café were first seen standing with their hands pressed against the windows. Local media reports said that a staff member of the café and another women were seen holding up a black and white flag, similar to those used by ISIS.
At one point, Australian TV broadcasted a live shot of what appears to be an armed man wearing a black headband using a young woman as a human shield as he paced near the windows.
The gunman is using hostages to call local media outlets to make demands. Police have asked that they not be published.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, who has repeatedly warned of plans aimed at striking targets in Australia, said that certain indicators reveal that the hostage situation may be a politically motivated attack.
“This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australian people,” Abott told reporters in Canberra.
New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn told the media that police were treating the attack as a hostage situation. “There is speculation about what he might want but we have to deal with him at the level of police negotiation,” she stated.
Police confirmed that they are operating on a terror footing.
Since joining a US-led coalition against ISIS, Australia has been on high alert for impending terror attacks by home-grown jihadists returning from fighting in the Middle East. In September, Australian police announced that they had thwarted a major terrorist plot in which a lone wolf attacker, affiliated with ISIS, planned to abduct and behead Australian civilians.
Australian intelligence officials estimate that some 60 of its citizens are currently fighting for ISIS and the Al Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. Another 15 Australian fighters, including two young suicide bombers, have died in the course of their fighting.
This report is unfolding.