Hostage drama at Sydney cafe
A gunman continues to negotiate with police almost nine hours into a hostage siege at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Martin Place in the heart of Sydney's CBD.
Five hostages have managed to flee the cafe, hours after a gunman first holed himself up in the store and forced hostages to display an Islamic flag.
It remains unclear how many hostages are still in the cafe.
Police have cordoned off an exclusion zone around the building, closing some roads. Apart from the affected area, people should go about their usual business in the city, police said.
Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said the situation is now unfolding as a "negotiation" with the armed person.
She said the approach was to deal with the situation "peacefully."
"It might take a bit of time but that is our approach," Burn said.
"We will be working into the night if this situation continues and we will be looking at arrangements for tomorrow."
Police have requested that media outlets do not report the gunman's demands.
They were also monitoring Facebook and Twitter regarding demands.
Earlier, two female cafe workers ran from the building at about 5pm local time (7pm NZT). Three men escaped about an hour earlier.
The women, appeared to be aged in their 20s, ran out of the cafe a few seconds apart and into the arms of police officers.
One of the two appeared to collapse as she rounded the corner from Martin Place into Elizabeth Street.
They fled from an office foyer on Martin Place that adjoins the cafe. Both were wearing brown Lindt aprons.
Television footage of the men showed two of them running from the front of the cafe on Martin Place. A third, dressed in what appeared to be a Lindt uniform, is shown escaping out a side door on Phillip Street.
A heavily armed police officer left the building after the men.
At an earlier media briefing, Burn confirmed three male hostages had made it out.
"We do not have any information to suggest anyone has been harmed at this stage," she said.
"Police negotiators have had contact and will continue to have contact."
She also said police could not confirm how many people remained inside, but it was fewer than 30.
Channel 7 reporter Chris Reason, whose office is across the road from the cafe, said he could see into the cafe and reckoned there were about 15 hostages – a "mix of women, men, young, old, but no children".
He said the gunman was rotating hostages, forcing them to stand against windows, sometimes two hours at a time.
Food was being delivered to the hostages, with staff bringing it out from the kitchen at the back.
"From inside Martin Place we can see the faces of hostages – pained, strained, eyes red and raw."
Burn said police did not yet know why the gunman was taking the action he has.
"Those motivations are not known and it would not be good to speculate," she said.
"We now have numerous police working on who this person is and what those motivations might be."
A number of hostages were being forced to hold an Islamic flag against the window shortly after the siege began at 9.45am.
Thousands of workers across the city have been sent home early and some of the city's major buildings evacuated.
They include the Opera House, the State Library, Channel Seven, the NSW parliamentary executive offices, the NSW Supreme Court's criminal courts, the Downing Centre, and several city legal chambers.
The central business district was in lockdown throughout the afternoon and people in some of the floors above the cafe have been told they may have to stay in their offices overnight.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised Sydney residents for their calmness in responding to the unfolding siege.
Abbott said he had just chaired a meeting of the National Security Committee of cabinet briefed by NSW Premier Mike Baird and NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione.
"This is a very disturbing incident. It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation," he said in a recorded update this evening.
Abbott said NSW police and other security agencies had responded with great professionalism.
He said throughout the day there had been nothing but total co-operation between governments, police and other agencies.
"I think I can also commend the people of Sydney for the calmness with which they have reacted to this disturbing incident. We are a free, open and generous people and today we have responded to this in character," he said.
Abbott said he had received messages of support from a number of international leaders.
"Yes, it has been a difficult day. Yes, it is a day which has tested us but so far, like Australians in all sorts of situation, we have risen to the challenge," he said.
Earlier Lindt Australia CEO Steve Loane estimated there were up to 50 people being held in the cafe.
A statement from the company said it would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and kind 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 statement said.
An Australian radio host claimed he talked to one of the hostages in the cafe, who was speaking on the phone under instruction from a gunman.
2GB radio host Ray Hadley said he did not broadcast the conversation because it wasn't in anyone's best interests.
He said the gunman was "talking about other operatives being involved".
"I could hear the person in the background giving instructions to the young man I was talking to. The young man, remarkably, was quite calm, quite calm, and he was quite happy for us to have his phone number and said 'I want you to ring me back in 10 minutes for further instructions from the man holding us hostage'."
All public schools within a 1km radius of the Sydney CBD were in lock-out mode, which prevented anyone from entering the school or children leaving.
Abbott earlier told Australians to "go about their business as usual" as authorities dealt with the siege.
"We don't yet know the motivation of the perpetrator, we don't know whether this is politically motivated although obviously there are some indications that it could be," Abbott said.
"We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours, there are people who would wish to do us harm."
Qantas diverted its planes away from central Sydney to free up space for authorities dealing with the siege.
A Qantas spokeswoman says its flights do not typically pass directly over the CBD, but planes were being diverted from flying over nearby suburbs to leave the way clear for police helicopters and other aircraft.
The move was not expected to cause significant delays.
A spokesman for Virgin Australia said its flights were also unaffected at this stage.
It was not known if any New Zealanders were being held hostage, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman said.
"As this is an evolving situation, it is unclear at this point whether any New Zealanders are involved," she said.
"New Zealanders in central Sydney are advised to follow the advice of local authorities and keep their family in New Zealand informed of their wellbeing."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Government was currently monitoring the situation in Sydney as events continued to unfold.
"Our hearts go out to those involved and our thoughts are very much with them and their families," he said.
He had contacted his Australian counterpart directly to offer a message of support, shortly after the siege got underway.
Agencies working on the siege were unable to confirm the nationalities of those involved, including whether any New Zealanders have been caught up in this situation, Key said.
Authorities in New Zealand and Australia would continue to stay in close contact as events unfold and facts became clearer.
DEVELOPMENTS THROUGH THE DAY:
* Five people have run out of the cafe. They appear to be safe and are with police.
* Reports on the number of hostages are varying, from as few as 10 to as many as 50, according to Lindt's Australian CEO. There could also be two gunmen inside the cafe
* The incident started about 10am, local time (midday NZT)
* Sources inside Westpac at Martin Place say they have been told they might need to stay overnight in their offices
* Australia PM Tony Abbott urged Australians to go about their business as usual
* Taxi and private hire car app Uber will offer free rides out of Sydney's CBD following criticism over charging passengers more than four times the usual rate while a siege is under way.
* Qantas is diverting planes from Sydney
* Queensland police are being ordered onto the streets in the wake of the siege
* Mfat says it is "unclear at this point" whether any New Zealanders are involved
* Australia's National Security Committee of Cabinet has been convened
* The flag seen being held up by hostages is not associated with Islamic State
* A man named Bruno was meant to be working in the cafe, but arrived minutes after the siege
* Schools are in a "white-level lockdown", preventing students from leaving
* Read an analysis of the drama here
The situation remains fluid and some details could change.
Benjamin Newlove, 25, an expat New Zealander working near Hyde Park less than a kilometre away from the siege, said the city was subdued.
He said people were worried about rumours of bomb devices planted around the city, but that appeared to be speculation.
"The police seem to have a good handle on what is happening so far," he said.
"A great deal of concern for the people taken hostage but we're sure the NSW state police and wider Commonwealth services will do everything they can to resolve it peacefully."
People in Newlove's office had stopped working to follow news coverage, or were checking out the window to see if they could see anything.
Christchurch fashion designer Sophia Lee is confined to her Sydney hotel room less than 1km from Martin Place.
"We've been here for five hours," Lee said. "It's close to us. We're looking out the windows and watching the news to find out what's happening. The streets are empty and all we can hear is sirens everywhere. It's scary."
Lee, who is in Sydney for a fashion shoot with Australian rapper Jackel, said she and Jackel were about to leave the hotel this morning to buy make-up when she got a phone call from her husband
"He rang me from Christchurch in a panic and wanted to know if I was OK," Lee said. "Since then I've just been locked in the room in the hotel. I was supposed to check out at midday but we are staying another night because we can't get out. All around us the buildings are in complete lockdown.
"It's shocking and horrific to know that there are people being held hostage just a couple of blocks from us. We've been told the gunman has a backpack on as well, with bombs strapped to himself."
Lee said she felt "particularly anxious".
"Because of going through the Christchurch quakes, and thinking there might be bombs everywhere outside, it's like playing those quake tapes in my mind again.
"I just hope it's over peacefully soon."
A Cantabrian living in Sydney, Casey Harrison, 22, said she and her workmates were not allowed to leave their 32-storey building a block from the siege for five hours. She walked past the cafe on her way to work from the Martin Place Station that morning.
"We got a message at 10 o'clock saying our building was in lock down because of what was happening." They were finally told they could go home at 3pm.
Workers inside her building were told to stay away from the windows, but the "whole building is glass", so there was no escaping it, she said.
"No-one has really done any work all day.
"I felt quite anxious at times. I'm just happy to be out of there to be honest. We just don't want to be around if something does happen. It's a bit unnerving being in the city."
When she left, she said the city was "like a ghost town", with no cars, buses or people on the street.
"It's a different sight to what we're used to."
Her boss told her to work from home tomorrow.