Armed Sydney attacker hoists black Islamic flag

A police operation is underway at a café in central Sydney, where up to 40 hostages are being held by an armed attacker and a black flag with Arabic inscriptions can be seen. Australia is contributing to the US-led operation against the Islamic State.

As the siege was about to enter its sixth hour, at least five people apparently escaped from the building. Live footage showed heavily-armed police regrouping near the cafe’s door, but not entering it.

A senior Lindt Australia official said that 10 staff and up to 30 customers could be held inside the Lindt Chocolate Café in Martin Place. There were “probably 30 customers” at the time of the attack, Sky Business quoted Lindt Chief Executive Steve Loane as saying.

There was no immediate confirmation of the exact number of assailants.

Live TV footage showed people standing inside the café with their hands pressed against the windows. At least one attacker was caught on camera wearing a traditional Islamic cap.

The hostages were forced to hold a black flag with an Arabic inscription, prompting fears that ruthless Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants were behind the attack.

The flag – which appeared different from the one typically used by the IS – was identified as the shahada, or the statement of Islamic faith. The shahada itself only contains the religious inscription “There is no god but the God, Mohammed is the messenger of the God.”

The armed Islamist gunman reportedly contacted a local radio station saying that four bombs were planted and demanding negotiations with Australian PM Tony Abbott.

The attack, which took place in Sydney’s central business district, forced nearby buildings in Martin Place – including the Reserve Bank of Australia – into lockdown.

The US has evacuated its Sydney consulate, which is close to the Lindt Cafe, Reuters quoted a spokeswoman as saying.

Reports on the ground suggest that young women being held hostage in the cafe are being used as a shield.

Earlier, Australian 2GB radio host Ray Hadley said that the captor had demanded to speak with Prime Minister Tony Abbott live on the radio.

Hadley added that hostages inside the cafe contacted him, but he declined to air their conversation due to safety concerns of those inside the building.

Another report claimed that gunmen have explosive suicide belts.

Meanwhile, NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said that no direct contact was made with the captor(s).

Dozens of police, including a SWAT team, were dispatched to the scene, and a couple hundred people were held back by cordons amid the evacuation of nearby buildings.

Media speculations connecting the attack to the Islamic State have sprung up, as Australia has been supporting the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria and Iraq. Back in September, Canberra contributed 600 troops and up to 10 military aircraft to the campaign.

In October, Australia launched its first fighter jet mission in Iraq against the IS. “The Super Hornet aircraft conducted an air interdiction and close air support mission over northern Iraq overnight,” the Australian Defence Force said in a statement.

ABC News live video showed that at least three people escaped through the emergency exit. A Sydney police representative confirmed that the hostages who had managed to escape were safe.