Dozens of people are being held hostage by a terrorist who stormed into a central Sydney cafe with a gun and forced crying women to hold a black Islamic flag up to the window.
Witnesses described how a man wearing a headband covered in Arabic walked into the Lindt cafe in Martin Place and produced a shotgun from a blue bag at around 9.45am.
Shortly afterwards hostages were seen with their hands pressed against the windows holding up the Shahada flag belonging to the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting the Assad government in Syria.
There are claims that the terrorist is also armed with a machete and may have explosives but this has not been confirmed by police.
One of the hostage-takers has made contact with officers saying that he has ‘devices all over the city’ and ‘wants to speak with the prime minister live on radio’, according to Ray Hadley, from 2GB.
Lindt Australia CEO Steve Loane estimates there are up to 50 people being held inside.
Armed police have sealed off streets around the cafe and Martin Place station is shut. Planes have been diverted away from the city centre.
Police have handcuffed a man 200m from the cafe with reports an officer has hit foot on what appears to be a small black handgun.
The incident began just hours after a 25-year-old suspect was arrested in a terror raid in Sydney.
Officials have also evacuated the Opera House after reports of a suspicious device.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the incident as ‘deeply concerning’.
‘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,’ he said in a statement.
Witnesses have described the chaotic scenes in Martin Place as the area was shut down and scores of police surrounded the building.
Journalist Chris Kenny, who was in the shop about 20 minutes before the siege began, said he understood the automatic glass sliding doors had been disabled.
‘I did speak to a couple of people who saw a bit more of this unfold than I did,’ he said.
‘One woman said she tried to go into the shop just after I came out with my takeaway coffee but the doors wouldn’t open.
‘So obviously whoever is doing this has disabled the automatic glass sliding doors to stop anyone else going in and she said immediately she could see there was a weapon.
‘The woman was quite frantic but very clear what she was telling (the police). I know the faces of the people who are sitting there enjoying a morning coffee.’
The Seven Network newsroom, which is in a building opposite the cafe, has been evacuated and other buildings in Martin Place, including the nearby Westpac building, have been cleared.
‘We’re just recommending no one go near Martin Place at the moment,’ a NSW Police spokeswoman said.
Martin Place train station has been closed and Qantas announced it had diverted all flights around Sydney’s CBD.
Another woman who works in the government building opposite the cafe tried to call her her office to say she couldn’t get past cordons and all the phone lines were down.
Patients from the nearby Sydney Hospital patients are also being evacuated.
Police have started the process of evacuating people from the first floor of the building above the Lindt Cafe.
Rosemary Healion, who works at Frederick Jordan Chambers, told Daily Mail Australia ‘a couple hundred’ of her colleagues were inside.
‘My colleagues are still in there. They’re trying to get them out now,’ Ms Healion told Daily Mail Australia.
Ms Healion said her office was on the ground floor, the same one as Lindt and they had been pushed behind the office’s reception area.
‘I’m so so worried as you would be. I was about to walk into the cafe. I get coffee there all the time.’
Window cleaner, David Wilson, managed to get a birds-eye-view of police swarming into Martin Place as he and a colleague cleaned the windows of a building across from Lindt.
‘We were looking around and there were cops running around and guns drawn. Some people came out, they looked like just coffee drinkers and that was about all we saw,’ Mr Wilson said, adding that his colleague’s first response was to get out his phone and start filming.
Rodrigo Neryt was arriving at Channel Seven for his first day of work experience when he heard screaming out the front of the café.
‘I was at the corner when everything started. I saw people yelling and screaming and two police cars arriving at the scene. I saw what looked like a black ISIS flag and they were holding it up’
John Edwards works across the road from the cafe on the ninth floor of 53 Martin Place.
He said every floor of the building had been cleared about 11.15am.
‘We were evacuated out of the building from the basement,’ Mr Edwards told Daily Mail Australia.
‘All we were told by security was to get out.’
NSW Premier Mike Baird said via Twitter that he had spoken to Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and had full confidence police were working effectively to resolve the situation.
‘My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the situation in Martin Place and NSW Police who are trained to deal with these events,’ he tweeted.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had offered Mr Baird all possible Commonwealth support and assistance.
‘The National Security Committee of Cabinet has also convened for briefings on the situation,’ he said in a statement.
‘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 Department of Education and Communities Safety and Security Unit has notified public schools of the hostage situation. All schools have been asked to assume ‘white level’ lockout which means no school group is to leave the school grounds.
A NSW Department of Education spokesman said all public schools within a 1km radius of the CBD were in ‘lock-out’ mode, which prevents anyone from entering the school or children leaving.
Any other schools outside this exclusion zone could make the decision to implement lock-outs if they felt it necessary, he said.
It was alleged that Omarjan Azari, the 22-year-old Sydney man arrested on terrorism charges in September, was planning a public beheading in Martin Place.
The alleged terror plot, mentioned in a conversation between Australian terrorism recruiter in Syria, Mohammad Ali Barylei and Azari, involved selecting a member of the public at random, beheading them and then covering their body in a flag.
The whole incident was going to be filmed, and then used as propaganda for the ISIS cause.
Federal prosecutors said the alleged terror plot was ‘clearly designed to shock, horror and terrify the community’
Police Prosecutor Michael Allnutt said that Azari had made a threat which involved a ‘random selection of persons to execute’ during a telephone conversation with Baryalei.
Azari was arrested on September 18 and charged with preparing for an act of terrorism.
He is due in court this week for a bail application.
The flag being held up in the window of the cafe is believed to be a Shahada flag, which is used by the group, Jabhat al Nusra.
Jabhat al Nusra was formed in January 2012, in the Syrian civil war to fight the Syrian government forces.
Jabhat al Nusra, or JN, aims to overthrow the Assad regime and replace it with a Sunni Islamic state.
Although the group is affiliated with al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra does not emphasize Western targets or global jihad, focusing instead on the ‘near enemy’ of the Syrian state.
Martin Place is one of Sydney’s busiest streets and is at the centre of the CBD. The Lindt cafe where the hostages are being held specialises in chocolate and has a number of branches across the city. -BBC News