Sydney siege: Police monitor social media reports of gunman demands

Social media posts by alleged hostages claimed the gunman wanted to speak directly with the prime minister.

Police gesture as a hostage (unseen) escapes from an emergency exit during a hostage siege in the central business district of Sydney on 15 December 2014. Picture: AFP.

SYDNEY - Australian police said on Monday they are monitoring alleged demands made on social media by hostages being held in a siege at a Sydney cafe and the "situation is contained in one area".

Network 10 reported that two female hostages had called with claims from the gunman that two bombs were planted elsewhere in the city. Social media posts by alleged hostages claimed the gunman wanted to speak directly with Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

"That is forming a part of our tactical response in how to handle this," Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said of the reports, declining to comment on any demands from the hostage-taker. She said people should go about their business as normal in Sydney.

Australian police locked down the centre of the country's biggest city on Monday after an armed assailant walked into the Lindt cafe in the heart of Sydney's financial district, took hostages and forced them to display an Islamic flag, igniting fears of a jihadist attack.

Abbott has confirmed the hostage situation taking place in the heart of Sydney is politically motivated.

One of the five hostages that managed to get out of the cafe is now being treated in hospital.

Police, including heavily armed paramilitary officers, cordoned off several blocks around the cafe as negotiators tried to defuse one of the biggest security scares in Australia for decades. Snipers and a SWAT team could be seen taking up positions around the cafe and police helicopters flew overhead.

Authorities are releasing limited information to protect their operation but are highly trained and drilled for this situation, after months of threats from Islamic terrorist group, the Islamic State organisation.

At least five hostages have escaped since the mid-morning siege began. It was not clear how many more hostages remained in the cafe but it was not as high as the 30-40 that had been reported earlier, police said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has warned of militant plans to strike Australian targets, said there were indications the hostage situation at the cafe was politically motivated.

"This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australian people," Abbott told reporters in Canberra, without providing any information on the siege.

Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, is on high alert for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.

"We have moved to a footing that would be consistent with a terrorist event," Andrew Scipione, police commissioner for the state of New South Wales, told reporters in Sydney.

The cafe was directly opposite a commercial television studio and footage earlier showed several people inside the cafe standing with their hands pressed against the windows.

[LISTEN] Courtney works six minutes away from the hostage situation

Pictures showed a black and white flag similar to those used by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria being held up by what appeared to be a staff member and another woman. Local media reports said the flag was the Shahada, a general expression of faith in Islam, a translation of which is: "There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah."

The incident forced the evacuation of nearby buildings in Sydney's central business district and sent shockwaves around a country where many people have started to turn their attention to the approaching Christmas festive season following earlier security scares.

In September, Australian anti-terrorism police said they had thwarted an imminent threat to behead a random member of the public and days later, a teenager in Melbourne was shot dead after attacking two anti-terrorism officers with a knife.