Australian media has named the hostage-taker in Sydney as Man Haron Monis.
An unknown number of hostages remain trapped inside a Sydney cafe and parts of the city remain in lockdown as the armed siege continues into the night.
Officials in Australia’s busiest city have vowed to spend as long as it takes to free those being held captive in the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Martin Place.
“Our only goal tonight, or for as long as this takes, is to get those people that are currently caught in that building out of there safely,” New South Wales (NSW) Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said.
“That remains our number one priority and that will not change.”
He said one hostage who managed to flee had been treated in hospital for a pre-existing condition rather than anything inflicted during the ordeal, adding: “I understand that no-one’s been injured. For that, if that is true, we are grateful.”
He said police negotiators had established contact with the armed man at the centre of the crisis but he would not comment on his motives.
As night fell in Sydney, a Lindt worker appeared to turn off the lights inside the cafe and armed police guarding the area outside fitted their helmets with night goggles.
Earlier, two people inside the building were seen holding up a flag containing an Islamic declaration of faith.
The hostage crisis began during the morning rush-hour – around 9.45am local time (10.45pm Irish Time on Sunday).
Six hours later, three men were seen running from a fire exit of the cafe.
Shortly afterwards, two women sprinted from the cafe, one after the other, and into the arms of heavily armed police. Both were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were members of staff.
Authorities refused to confirm how many hostages remain inside.
Some city businesses and tourist landmarks including the Opera House were evacuated this morning but were later declared safe.
However, an exclusion zone will remain in place in the city’s financial, political legal hub tomorrow, and office workers based within that zone have been urged to work from home.
The Reserve Bank of Australia, which is based in Martin Place, said it had “activated its business resumption facilities” in the city’s north-west, and its critical functions are expected to operate normally.
The nearby NSW Supreme Court complex will not open until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.
Television footage shot through the cafe’s windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.
“This is a very disturbing incident,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.”
Heavily armed officers were lined up outside the cafe, and a man with a backpack could be seen inside, walking back and forth in front of the glass doors.
“Police have been in attendance and have controlled the situation from very early this morning,” said Mr Scipione.
Lindt Australia posted a message on its Facebook page thanking the public for their support.
“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 company wrote.
The government raised Australia’s terror warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group. Counter-terror law enforcement teams later carried out dozens of raids and made several arrests in Australia’s three largest cities – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
One man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an Islamic State leader in Syria to behead a random person.
The Islamic State group, which now holds a third of Syria and Iraq, has threatened Australia in the past. In September, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio message urging so-called “lone wolf” attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia. He told Muslims to kill all “disbelievers”, whether they be civilians or soldiers.
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 asked it not to broadcast it.
Mr Scipione asked all media that might be contacted by the gunman to urge him instead to talk to police.
Seven Network television news staff watched the gunman and hostages for hours from a fourth-floor window of their Sydney offices, opposite the cafe.
Reporter Chris Reason said the man pacing backwards and forwards appeared to be carrying a pump-action shotgun, was unshaven and was wearing a white shirt and a black cap.
Earlier in the day, network staff counted about 15 different faces among hostages forced up against the windows.
“The gunman seems to be sort of rotating these people through these positions on the windows with their hands and faces up against the glass,” Mr Reason said in a report from the vantage point.
“One woman we’ve counted was there for at least two hours – an extraordinary, agonising time for her surely having to stand on her feet for that long.”
“Just two hours ago when we saw that rush of escapees, we could see from up here in this vantage point the gunman got extremely agitated as he realised those five had got out. He started screaming orders at the people, the hostages who remain behind,” he added.
Mr Reason later said that staff brought plates of food from a kitchen at the rear of the cafe and the hostages were fed.
Infosys, an Indian IT services provider, confirmed that one of its employees was among the hostages. The person’s family has been informed, it said.
A 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.
“There haven’t been statements from overseas linking this to extremist groups outside the country – that is quite positive,” said Charles Knight, lecturer in the Department of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at Australia’s Macquarie University.
“The individual or individuals involved didn’t kill early, which is part of the pattern of some recent international attacks ... It seems to be shifting more into the model of a traditional hostage situation, rather than the sort of brutal attacks we’ve seen overseas.”
Members of the Australian Islamic community have braced for a possible backlash.
Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders were moved to hold an inter-faith candlelight vigil in the city’s west, while Mr Scipione said: “Clearly reprisal attacks are something that should not happen. At this stage we need everyone to settle down. We want people to remain calm.
“There are large numbers of police involved in ensuring a level of safety and confidence that people can go about their business in any part of New South Wales.”
But the unfolding crisis has also prompted an outpouring of support for local Muslims.
The hashtag #IllRideWithYou has since been trending on Twitter in Sydney and other major Australian cities, with public transport users offering to act as buddies for anyone who might be too nervous to appear in public wearing religious garb.