Authorities in Sydney, Australia are responding to a hostage situation that appears to involve Islamic militants.
Two hostages inside the siege have told Australia's Channel Ten news that the gunman, who is calling himself "The Brother", has two bombs inside a Sydney cafe where they are being held and two other bombs elsewhere in Sydney's city centre.
Channel Ten became the third confirmed news organization to be contacted by the gunman at the centre of the siege with 2GB and Channel Nine both confirming contact. Channel Ten reported that the man is demanding an Islamic State flag be brought to him, and that he is allowed to speak to Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
We have just spoken with 2 hostages inside the cafe. Gunman has 2 demands: wants ISIL flag in exchange for 1 hostage, and a call to our PM
— Matt Doran (@mattdoran22)December 15, 2014
Ben Fordham with Sydney's 2GB radio station read out a similar message that had been received by the station from hostages. The message that Fordham read out included the phrase, "the man wants the world to know that Australia is under Attack from the IS."
The revelation came soon after five of the hostages held in the cafe escaped. Three men ran out of the cafe at 3:40pm, while two women, in cafe uniforms, escaped at 5:00pm. It is still unclear exactly how they were able to leave the siege which is ongoing with several hostages still inside. Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn refused to clarify whether they were released or escaped.
Police shut down Sydney's Martin Place, a large pedestrian thoroughfare leading up to state parliament, after armed gunman took hostages inside a Lindt Chocolate Cafe. Live television news images showed hostages holding a black flag with white Arabic text to the windows of the cafe. The flag is the Shahada, a flag associated with Sunni militant groups such as the Islamic State, al Shabaab, and al Qaeda. The text on the flag is a pledge of faith for Sunni Muslims that reads "there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet."
It is not the flag of the Islamic State, though the similarity caused some confusion in early media reports.
Police confirmed to the ABC that they have identified the gunman.
Australia's National Security committee was convened to respond to the situation. The committee includes Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a number of cabinet ministers, the chief of the defense forces, and the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. Abbott released a statement about the situation via Twitter.
1/2 The incident in Martin Place is obviously deeply concerning but all Australians should be reassured...
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR)December 15, 2014
2/2 ...that our law enforcement and security agencies are well trained and equipped and are responding in a thorough & professional manner.
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR)December 15, 2014
New South Wales police commissioner Andrew Scipione New South Wales Police held his latest press conference at 8:30pm local time.
"Can I start by saying our plan, our only goal tonight and for as long as this takes, is to get those people that are currently caught in that building, out of there safely," Scipione said to assembled media.
He also addressed concerns that reprisal attacks could be directed against Australia's Muslim community. "Clearly reprisal attacks are something that should not happen," he said, asking for the community to remain calm.
Scipione had previously said police have "not yet confirmed that this is a terror-related event," and that "at least" one gunman is involved.
Asked about the flag displayed in the windows of the cafe, the commissioner said "it's a flag that we've had people looking at. We're working with partner agencies to better determine what we're dealing with."
Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn confirmed that police negotiators have in fact "had contact and will continue to have contact," with those inside the cafe. She said the number of hostages was definitely below 30, a number that had been reported by some media organizations.
Ray Hadley, a shock jock radio host at Sydney's 2GB radio station, claimed he spoke to a hostage at the cafe. Hadley said the hostage contacted him under the direction of the gunman, who asked to go live on the air.
"I told the man it's not in your best interest to be heard on live radio," Hadley said.
Hadley also broadcast a message to the gunman.
"If the man holding hostages is listening to this program, please, please release the women," Hadley said. "It doesn't matter whether you have five hostages or 10. You have hostages. So just, please, please, please, release the women."
Hadley then said he passed on the phone number and name of the individual who called him to the New South Wales police, who confirmed to him that the man who called was in fact a hostage.
Hadley, known for his confrontational style, lashed out at callers and Twitter users who doubted the veracity of the call.
"I reject comments by people who wouldn't know their arse from their elbows," he said on air.
Hadley is a controversial figure in Australian media who is known for a particularly vitriolic brand of broadcasting. He has faced a number of defamation suits from fellow broadcasters, and was suspended from his job in 2013 for abusing a junior staff member.
Martin Place was the target of an Islamic State-connected plot that Australian police thwarted in October. The plot reportedly involved kidnapping a random member of the Australian public and beheading the person publicly. James Brown, a former Australian army officer who now works with The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, believes the gunman may be connected to the Islamic State.
"The fact it is in Martin Place suggests, but does not confirm [an] IS connection — this is where IS planned a beheading attack several months ago," Brown tweeted. "Also, choosing a shop directly opposite the Channel 7 TV live broadcast studio could suggest intent to exploit propaganda value. But all we know for sure at the moment is that a crime is being committed and someone involved wants to suggest an Islamic association."
Ben Rich, an expert on political violence and Middle East studies at Monash University in Australia, believes that the Shahada flag does not rule out a connection to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
"It's the generic Islamist flag and it's been appropriated by a number of groups, militant and not," Rich told VICE News. "The text is even on the Saudi flag as well, except that's green. But it's not an ISIS flag, the ISIS flag looks very different. That said, a lot of radicalized Australians we've seen aren't the brightest sparks, and it's quite possible these guys might have accidentally picked up the wrong flag. Realistically, these guys may have been influenced by ISIS because we haven't seen this type of thing before."
Rich added that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "has urged followers to 'do what is within your means' when he put out this global call to supporters of IS, so this might be an attack that is simply within these guys' means."
As the siege stretched into its sixth hour, Shaun Filer, a former US Marine Corp medic now working as a senior consultant with the crisis management firm Dynamiq, spoke to VICE News from Sydney.
"There's a lot that is communicated by the nature and timing of the event," said Filer. "This began a little before 10am. The media cycle in the United States is still rolling at that time, it's sort of prime time. So that could be an indication of forward planning, because there's no point doing something like this while the US and Europe are asleep."
"The longer the situation plays out could be a positive indicator. No one knows the motivations, or the mindset of the assailant or assailants — except for the people in that room —but if their only goal was fury and chaos then you'd expect to see an immediate and violent escalation with minimal to no notice."
Dr Anne Aly, an expert in homegrown terrorism at Curtin University who sits on the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, believes the gunman is indeed a lone actor, without training or support from a wider terrorist network.
"There's a trend of lone opportunistic actors", she told VICE News. "We used to talk about terrorist cells, but now rather than individual cells we have lone actors taking things into their own hands. They're inspired by groups such as IS and they think they're contributing to that group."
"But what we've seen in the past," Aly continued, "is this is how groups end. When groups are less organized and it's just people committing random acts they fall apart. This lack of cohesion shows an inability to commit tactical trans national terrorism."
Channel Seven, a local television station, has its offices across the street from the cafe. A producer with the network, Patrick Byrne, spoke to ABC News.
"Our morning editorial meeting was interrupted when we received word that New South Wales police were conducting a major operation in Martin Place," he said. "We looked out the window to see several hostages at the windows of the Lindt Cafe and it was then that gasps went through the newsroom as the ominous black and white of an IS flag was pressed up against one of the window panes by the hostages."
Chris Reason, a senior Journalist for Channel Seven, was allowed to re-enter the newsroom this afternoon. He has reported that there are about 15 hostages remaining in the café.
From inside Martin Place newsroom, we've counted around 15 hostages - not 50 - mix of women, men, young, old - but no children.
— Chris Reason (@ChrisReason7)December 15, 2014
The tactical response squad of the New South Wales police quickly arrived in the area and established a perimeter around the building. Authorities used ladders to evacuate people trapped in the floors above the cafe.
Large crowds gathered in the area around the cafe to watch the situation unfold.
The federal government denied airspace over the Sydney city centre had been shut down, although the iconic Sydney Opera House was evacuated, and all performances have been cancelled for the evening.
The United States consulate in Sydney issued an emergency alert to US citizens. "US citizens are strongly encouraged to review your personal security plan, remain aware of your surroundings including local events, and monitor local news stations for updates. Maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security," the statement said.
The US Consulate is one of several high profile organizations based in Martin Place near the site of the siege. Martin Place is also the home of the Australia Reserve Bank.
Australia's Grand Mufti, the highest ranking Sunni Muslim cleric in the country, issued a statement condemning the "criminal act," and emphasizing that "such actions are denounced in part and in whole by Islam."
Prayers have been scheduled for 8:00pm local time at religious institutions across Australia, including Sydney's Lakemba Mosque and St Georges Anglican Church.
_This is a breaking news story — please check back for updates. _