Wednesday, December 8

Australian PM calls Sydney cafe hostage crisis “disturbing”


SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday (Dec 15) said a hostage crisis at a cafe in Sydney’s central business district was “disturbing” in a live television address as police cordoned off the are around the venue where a flag with Arabic writing was held up to a window.

“We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours there are people who would wish to do us harm.” Mr Abbott said.

Reports had said a gunman told authorities he had devices all over the city and demanded to speak to Abbott, local media said. The Sydney Morning Herald said a man armed with a gun held up the shop, but other media reports said there was more than one attacker.

Mr Abbott has convened the National Security Committee for emergency briefings.

“This is obviously a deeply concerning incident but all Australians should be reassured that our law enforcement and security agencies are well trained and equipped and are responding in a thorough and professional manner,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement before the television appearance.

Airlines said on Monday that flights are landing and taking off normally at Sydney Airport, but a diversion is in place around the city’s central business district where the hostage crisis is taking place.

Martin Place in the central business district was shut down as scores of police surrounded the Lindt Chocolat Cafe, with TV pictures showing a flag, black with white Arabic writing, held to a window. Reports said as many as 20 people were in the cafe and that there were at least two gunmen, although police had no immediate comment, only confirming that an operation was underway. Witnesses reported hearing loud bangs that sounded like gun shots.

Patrick Byrne, a producer at Channel Seven whose newsroom is opposite the cafe, said staff at the television station watched the situation unfold. “We raced to the window and saw the shocking and chilling sight of people putting their hands up against the panes of glass at the cafe,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“This was just extraordinary.”

Separately, Australian authorities are dealing with an “incident” at Sydney’s Opera House, police said Monday, without elaborating on whether it was related to an ongoing siege at a nearby cafe. “The police are responding to an incident at the Opera House,” a New South Wales police spokeswoman told AFP.

Reports said the Opera House had been evacuated. A man has been arrested about 200m from the cafe siege site, police said, but not directly related, according to a posting on Twitter.

US President Barack Obama has been briefed about the situation at a cafe in Sydney where hostages were being held and an Islamic flag had been displayed, a White House official said Sunday. Lisa Monaco, the president’s top counter-terrorism advisor, had spoken to Obama about events in the Australian city, the White House official said.

The US Consulate General Sydney also warned American citizens to avoid the area until further notice.

Several large companies in the city centre of Sydney have shut offices, including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch and Nomura, which are based in the Governor Macquarie Tower, a few hundred metres from the cafe. – AFP