A hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia, continues hours after it began early Monday.
Five people have escaped from the restaurant in Sydney's central business district, where a gunman is holding an undetermined number of hostages. Estimates run from as few as 10 to as many as 25.
Chris Reason, a reporter at Channel Seven television, whose office is opposite the cafe, said on Twitter, "We can see gunman is rotating hostages, forcing them to stand against windows, sometimes 2 hours at a time."
Live television from the scene Monday showed an employee of the Lindt Chocolate Cafe and two customers running past police, who have surrounded the restaurant and sealed off the area. Later, another two people ran out of the building.
It is not clear if the five escaped on their own or were set free by the gunman.
Nearby area cleared
Sydney's famed Opera House, which is located several blocks away, was also evacuated after officials said a suspicious package was found there.
Nearby offices have been evacuated as a precaution. Streets in the area were cordoned off and a train line running under the restaurant was shut down.
Hostages have been seen standing with their hands pushed up against the windows. A black flag with Arabic writing on it also could be seen through the glass.
There are no known injuries from the hostage incident, which has been ongoing for several hours.
The apparent hostage taker has been seen through a window. He is wearing a white shirt with a black vest, and carrying some type of weapon.
New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn, a police spokeswoman, said contact has been made by the hostage taker, but negotiators have not been able to establish a motive for the crisis.
"Police negotiators have had contact and they continue to have contact and we will work through this as we do with our negotiators, Burn said. "It might take a bit of time, but we want to resolve this peacefully. And I assure you if it takes a bit of time, we will take that time."
She continued: "There is speculation about what he might want, but we have to deal with him on the level of police negotiation. We can not be engaged in any speculation but let it also be reassured that we are monitoring all forms of communication, whether that is Facebook or Twitter, for any information that might assist."
New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione addressed a news conference but refused to call the situation a terrorist event.
"At this stage, the operational advice that I've got is we're still determining what it is that may well be the motivation and at this stage we are still not yet in the position to determine where the individual is from," Scipione siad.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told a news conference earlier that no one yet knows the motivation of whoever is behind the incident. He said the point of such acts is to scare people out of being themselves, and he urged all Australians to go about their business as usual.
However, Abbott added, “This is a very disturbing incident. I can understand the concerns and anxieties of the Australian people."
He said law enforcement agencies are responding in a thorough and professional manner.
The cafe is located in the heart of Sydney's financial and shopping district, an area that is packed with holiday shoppers at this time of year.
The New South Wales state parliament house is just a few blocks away.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. Consulate General in Sydney, which is in the vicinity where the hostage-taking incident is taking place, has been evacuated as a security precaution.
Psaki said all chief-of-mission personnel have been accounted for and a small group of consulate staff continues to work from a secure location.
"We are closely following the security incident in Sydney. Our hearts and prayers go out to those who are being held hostage," she added.
Psaki said that as Australia law enforcement officials handles the threat, the department is advising U.S. citizens and others to avoid the area.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, earlier this year raised its domestic terror threat level from medium to high, mainly due to concerns about home-grown extremists.
About 70 Australians are thought to be fighting for militant groups in the Middle East.
In September, Australia’s largest counterterror raids took place in Sydney and Brisbane. One person was charged with terror offenses.
Tough anti-terror laws were passed by the Australian parliament in October in response to the threat of homegrown extremism.
Phil Mercer contributed to this report from Sydney. Some material for this report came from Reuters.