Update 2:25 PM ET: Local police confirmed Monday afternoon that the gunman as well as a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman died in the hostage crisis. No explosive devices were found at the scene. 17 hostages total have been accounted for.
Update 10:41 AM ET: Police have confirmed that after 16 hours Sydney's hostage crisis is over. The condition of the gunman is unknown at this time.
Update 10:20 AM ET: As the situation unfolds in Sydney, several more hostages were seen emerging from the cafe, followed by police moving in and heavy gunfire.
Original story: Australian police locked down the center of Sydney on Monday after an armed man took hostages in a downtown cafe. Reuters reports that the hostage-taker has forced trapped customers to display an Islamic flag, "igniting fears of a jihadist attack."
Heavily-armed officers and paramilitary police (the Australian equivalent of American SWAT unites) have cordoned off several blocks around the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Martin Place, a popular downtown lunch spot, as negotiators tried to defuse what's being called "one of the biggest security scares in Australia for decades."
Police have identified the gunman as "self-styled Sheikh" Haron Monis. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Monis, 50, "first came to attention of police when he penned poisonous letters to the family of dead Australian soldiers" between 2007 and 2009. Monday's incident allegedly follows an unsuccessful, last-ditch attempt to have charges over those letters overturned.
Local authorities won't say exactly how many hostages are inside the cafe, but about 15 hostages are visible through the windows, according to local media. Reuters reports that "at least five hostages have been released or escaped since the mid-morning siege began, with terrified cafe workers and customers seen running into the arms of paramilitary police."
Image Credit: Associated Press
Image Credit: Associated Press
Australian authorities have refused to say what they believe the gunman's motives might be. It's unclear whether the gunman has made any demands at this time.
"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 told a news conference on Monday. "First and foremost, we have to make sure we do nothing that could in any way jeopardize those still in the building."
Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said the police "do not have any information that suggests that anybody is harmed at this stage," according to the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that "police negotiators have had contact and will continue to have contact."
Australians have been on high alert in recent months. "Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, has been on high alert for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East," Reuters reports.
In September, security officials carried out the largest counter-terrorism operation in the nation's history. More than 800 security forces, including police officers from the Australian Federal Police and agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, conducted raids on 25 homes in Sydney and Brisbane, foiling an alleged plot by Islamic extremists connected to Islamic State to "behead a random member of the public on film."
Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called for "lone wolf" attacks abroad shortly after the raids, specifically mentioning Australia and urging Muslims to kill all "disbelievers."
It's unclear whether this incident is directly connected to threats of violence from the Islamic State. Martin Place, the site of the current hostage crisis, was revealed as a potential location for the thwarted beheading. BuzzFeed News rightly notes that the flag on display in the shop window is not the same as the one displayed by Islamic State militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Muslim leaders have urged calm. The Australian National Imams Council condemned the hostage crisis as "this criminal act unequivocally" in a joint statement with the Grand Mufti of Australia, and an inter-faith prayer meeting was held at one of Sydney's grand mosques on Monday evening.
As of Monday evening, Australians remain transfixed as the war on terror comes home to Sydney.
"This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australian people," Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had warned of militant plans to target Australians, told reporters in Canberra. "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."
This is a developing story. Follow @World_Mic on Twitter for the latest updates.
Editors Note: Mar. 2, 2015
An earlier version of this article failed to cite a passages from Reuters in accordance with Mic editorial standards. The article has been updated to properly attribute the language to Reuters.