Sydney Lindt Cafe siege: Police confirm the 17-hour siege has ended
Strabane woman caught up in "terrifying" city lockdown
A 17-hour siege in a Sydney cafe has come to an end after police stormed a building where up to 13 people were held hostage by an armed man.
Staff and customers were forced to hold what appeared to be a black Islamic flag against the window of the Lindt Chocolat Café in Martin Place in Sydney's Central Business District.
The siege began at around 9.45am local time (10.45pm Sunday UK time.
The police operation was launched as fire more hostages fled the cafe more than 16 hours after the siege began.
Australian state broadcaster ABC reported that two people were dead and three were in a serious condition.
But police were not able to confirm reports.
Leonie Ryan from Fairfax Radio reported that police did not plan to storm the building, but were prompted to do so when the gunman opened fire.
The siege end came soon after the hostage taker was named as Muslim cleric Man Haron Monis, who recently attracted attention by writing offensive letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service for writing the offensive letters and was also banned in 2010 from writing similar "letters of condolence" to the families of British soldiers killed in that conflict.
It is believed Monis was out on bail after he was arrested earlier this year over sexual assault allegations stemming from 2002. He was also reportedly charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.
Sydney police have said he is well known to them.
His former lawyer said he believed he was acting alone and was not part of a terrorist conspiracy.
Manny Conditsis told the ABC: "This is a one-off random individual. It's not a concerted terrorism event or act.
"It's a damaged goods individual who's done something outrageous.
"His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness."
Earlier dramatic footage captured the moment the first five of the hostages fled the building.
Two female cafe workers ran from the building at about 5pm and about an hour before that, three men escaped.
Shortly after 2am at least five more hostages escaped from the building.
As the siege came to an end, one hostage with blood on her bare feet could be seen being carried from the building in tears by armed officers.
The ABC reported a number of people were rushed to waiting ambulances, though it was not clear what injuries they suffered, if any.
Bomb disposal officers in protective gear were also seen entering the building and a bomb disposal robot was deployed.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the latest hostages to flee and the police to move in.
Five people were treated by medics on stretchers.
Armed police then stormed the building and gunfire and explosions were heard.
Ambulance crews were called to the scene and people were receiving medical treatment outside the building.
It was not known exactly how many people are inside the cafe, although it was reported that a Lindt executive had said there were 10 staff members in the venue.
The lights in the cafe have been turned out internally.
A 24-year-old woman from Strabane works in the Avenue restaurant which is on the same block as the Lindt cafe and described the "terrifying" scenes of lockdown.
Patrina Cooke told Highland Radio: "We had to shut down our area which is a block down from where the attack had took place.
"We had to shut down our business and leave everything inside and close up.
"Unable to move from the vicinity, we were advised to stay away from glass bottles and things like that.
"We didn't know how it was going to turn out."
She continued: "When you see Sky News involved and helicopters involved, I was pretty much was petrified, I walk past it (Lindt Cafe) every day to my work. If I stand at the end of my street I can see where it is.
"To see swat cars and guns - my first thought was to ring my sister to make sure she knew I was OK.
"My best friend and cousin who are out here with me, I made sure to ring them straight away to make sure they don't come in to the town because the whole city was in lockdown.
"It was something that I would not ever wish on anybody it was a dramatic scene.
"I had to wait for a while until it was safe enough to move down.
She added: "It's like a movie scene. It's something I never would have thought I would see."
New South Wales's Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione confirmed that the incident involved "an armed offender" and "an undisclosed number of hostages", and that they had not as yet had any communication or contact with the hostage-taker. On being questioned, Mr Scipione said there was "at least one armed offender", and the police were operating "on a terrorism footing".
He told an evening media conference that police were in contact with the suspected gunman.
Mr Scipione said: "Our plan, our only goal tonight is to get those people who are currently caught in that building, out of there.
"Rest assured we are doing all we can to set you free."
He refused to answer a question about the lights being turned off in the cafe.
Police efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the cafe siege are continuing well in the night.
The suspected gunman had issued a series of demands through media outlets, which police have requested are not to be reported.
The flag seen in the window is believed to be the Shahada, which carries a message that translates as: "There is no deity of worship except God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God."
Armed police officers were seen outside the café with their guns drawn, and a man with a backpack inside the cafe could be seen walking back and forth in front of the glass doors. The building it is in contains a number of state government bodies.
Police closed roads in the area and also stopped some trains from running after the alert was raised at about 9.45am on Monday local time. The newsroom at broadcaster Channel7, which is about 30 metres away, was evacuated.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was unclear if the siege was politically motivated.
"We don't yet know if this is politically motivated, although there are some indications that it might be," Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
"This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australia people," Abbott said, without providing any information on the unfolding siege.
Mr Abbott's office earlier released a statement: "New South Wales Police and the Australian Federal Police are currently responding to a reported hostage-taking incident in Martin Place in Sydney.
"I have spoken with NSW Premier Mike Baird and offered him all possible Commonwealth support and assistance.
"The National Security Committee of Cabinet has also convened for briefings on the situation."
Mr Abbott told Australians to "go about their business as usual".
“This is chilling,” said Kylie Gillies, host of Channel7’s The Morning Show as she watched events from the studio.
Talk radio presenter Ray Hadley claimed on Twitter that he was rung by a hostage while on air. He took the call off air and the station, 2GB, then said that the NSW police commissioner has confirmed this.
Her colleague Shelly Horton, a journalist with the station, tweeted: “Terrifying siege in Martin Place. Those poor hostages. My @themorningshowon7 @sunriseon7 friends have been evacuated.”
Earlier on Monday, police arrested a 25-year-old man in the city as part of operations to disrupt the flow of money and fighters to conflict zones such as those in Iraq and Syria.
The police commissioner confirmed that the two incidents were not in any way linked.
John Key, the New Zealand Prime Minister, is one of the world leaders to have sent messages of support to Mr Abbott.
Australia is on high alert for attacks by radicalised Muslims or by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East, having raised its threat level to high and undertaken a series of high-profile raids in major cities.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that at least 70 Australians were fighting in Iraq and Syria backed by about 100 Australia-based "facilitators".
Social media support
Australians have come together to show their collective support for the Muslim population.
The #illridewithyou have sparked more than 120,000 tweets on Monday evening as Australians took a stand against anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the cafe siege.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, a young Sydney woman Rachael Jacobs appears to have inspired the campaign after posting a Facebook status about he encounter with a Muslin woman earlier in the day.
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