Sydney siege gunman ID'd as 'hate sheikh' after five hostages frantically escape



About a dozen hostages are reportedly being held by an armed gunman calling himself "the brother" in a Sydney, Australia, chocolate store who was allegedly encouraging them to use social media and call reporters.

A 49-year-old, "self-styled" Iranian sheikh wanted as an accessory to murder stormed a Lindt cafe Monday morning in the city's financial district around 9:45 a.m., according to The Australian. He was identified by 9News as Haron Man Monis.

Previous reports have labeled Monis as a "hate sheikh" and detailed his sordid past, which includes a charge for accessory to his ex-wife's murder, according to ABC News. The 30-year-old former spouse was reportedly stabbed to death and her body set on fire.

Monis is currently free on bail. A girlfriend is his co-defendant, she has been charged with murder.

Five people have since escaped the siege, which has gone on for more than 14 hours.

The cafe is now pitch black as day has worn into the night. The hostage-taker has apparently ordered the lights be turned off.

Three men and two women have escaped in the hours since the ordeal began. They were seen running out of the cafe and towards SWAT police with their hands in the air.

Footage showed the two women running frantically to the waiting arms of SWAT commandos. The first woman was in hysterics as she met the officer, who whisked her to safety.

The remaining hostages have spent the majority of Monday contacting Sydney radio and television stations and updating social media with the hostage-taker's demands.

None of the hostages are believed to have been harmed, officials have repeatedly said. Media reports have suggested the gunman is armed with a shotgun, but police have not confirmed.

Police sources have told 7News that the hostage-taker has demanded an Islamic State flag in exchange for the release of a single hostage. He also has claimed multiple bombs were planted inside the store and in the surrounding neighborhood, but police have not been unable to verify their existence.

The suspected terrorist has also made repeated demands to speak with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, either over the phone or live on the radio.

Police have identified the suspect but refuse to make his identity public, NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said in a Monday afternoon press briefing. She also admitted knowing exactly how many hostages were being held but declined to provide the number for "operational reasons."

Hostages Seen Fleeing Australian Cafe
Hostages Seen Fleeing Australian Cafe

Initial reports suggested 12 or 13 people were being held in the Lindt cafe, and Burn admitted the possibility that as many as 30 people were captive, but a 7 News journalist told CNN Monday evening that he counted about a dozen from his vantage point in television studios directly across from the store.

Following the escape of the five detainees in two separate waves, the gunman became enraged and herded the remaining hostages into a different area of the store where he could better keep track of them.

Hundreds of SWAT, police and military commandos have swarmed the area, lined the streets and even perched atop buildings as snipers.

The gunman has been described as bearded and wearing a bandana, it is not clear which firearm(s) he is brandishing, in some reports. A witness told CNN the suspect is tall, in his late 40s, wearing a white long-sleeve shirt and black vest. Footage from local media identified a possible suspect matching the suspicion.

It is not clear if the suspect is a lone wolf or part of a larger group. Terror groups have been encouraging lone wolf attacks around the world during the past few months.

A jihadist flag has been displayed in the front window, footage from 7News showed, and some reports have suggested several dozen people are trapped inside. It is a shahada, or profession of faith, and appears to be displayed in place of an Islamic State flag, which the suspect has demanded.

"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God," the flag says, according to The New Daily.

Lindt's CEO told The New Daily early on in the siege that there were 10 staff and several customers in the store when the gunmen entered. He estimated as many as 50 hostages.

Top officials around the world and in Australia have condemned the incident, including the country's top Muslim imam.

Authorities said in a Monday afternoon press conference they have yet to confirm motivation for the assault or the suspected terrorist's nationality.

"We have an armed offender holding an undisclosed number of hostages," said NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione. "We're still determining what it is that may well be the motivation."

Video from the scene posted to Facebook shows an eerie lack of pedestrians and vehicles in the middle of one of the busiest neighborhoods in Australia's largest city.

Post by Designer James Treble.

The ordeal began when a woman saw a man walking with a blue duffel bag, thought he had a gun and told police, 7News is also reporting. The suspect then walked inside the chocolate shop, locked the doors and began taking hostages.

Images from the scene show hostages grimly pressed up against the store's windows while holding the black and white flag up for the world to see.

The area has been completely shut down to pedestrian and vehicular traffic and police have swarmed the storefront, according to the Daily Telegraph. Subways in the area have also been halted.

Abbott also admitted during a Monday afternoon press conference that the siege could be politically-motivated.

"We must appreciate, even in a society such as ours, there are people who wish to do us harm," Harper told his jittery nation, and the world. "Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society, nothing should ever change that."

The Sydney Opera House was evacuated over concerns from a suspicious package but has since been reopened, CNBC World reported. The 7News network was also ordered to evacuate its headquarters located only blocks from the cafe, according to reports.

All courts and the U.S. consulate, both in the Martin Place neighborhood, have also been evacuated, according to several reports.

Earlier reports that the airspace over Sydney was closed were immediately refuted by officials. Some flights have been diverted to avoid helicopters in the air over the scene.

Numerous bus and train lines were also suspended, according to reports, but service has mostly resumed outside of the immediate area surrounding the siege.

Martin Place is a shopping mall located the Australian city's financial district. The country's federal reserve bank and several major banks are headquartered in the immediate vicinity.

The Sydney Stock Exchange, which is only blocks away, was locked down along with many of the area's other financial institutions.

Lindt released the following statement on Facebook.

Post by Lindt Chocolate Cafe Australia.

The terror-backed Islamic State has threatened Australia in the past. A September audio tape urged so-called "lone wolf" attackers to target the island nation.

The threats came as Australian authorities carried out a number of terror-related raids in the past few months. Federal officials even raised the country's terror alert only weeks ago.

This is a developing story, more information will come as it is made available.

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