SYDNEY – Australia’s Jewish community went into official lockdown on Monday after a gunman held hostages inside an inner-city café in Sydney.
The siege began just before 10 A.M. Monday morning inside the Lindt chocolate café in Sydney's central business district and was still continuing over 12 hours later.
TV pictures showed two hostages holding a black-and-white flag with the Arabic text of the Shahada – the affirmation of Islam – at the window of the cafe.
Counterterrorism agents swarmed the city center, evacuating the Opera House and other key sites as Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the media the gunman had a “political motivation.”
“This is a very disturbing incident,” he said. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.”
By nightfall, five hostages had escaped or been freed; the number of hostages who remain captive have not been confirmed.
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A senior Jewish security official, who declined to be named, told Haaretz: “Jewish institutions across Australia are in lockdown, excursions have been canceled and tight security measures are in place.”
Children at Jewish schools who were on excursions during Monday were whisked back to campuses in Sydney, with one Jewish school texting parents to say they were “acting on the advice of the Community Security Group.”
Although Jewish leaders do not comment on security matters, several did confirm the threat level to the Jewish community had been elevated by the CSG as a result of the hostage crisis.
At least one major Jewish institution in Sydney issued a “code red” emergency alert; the building was sealed with no one allowed to enter or exit for several hours before the alert was lifted.
Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said it was “most likely the work of an Islamist terrorist organization.”
"We do, of course, maintain excellent relations with the Australians and are willing to assist with anything they need, We can also help from afar," Ya’alon told Army Radio, adding, " We are in touch with them."
Gad Elbaz, an Israeli Sephardi singer who played a concert in Sydney on Sunday, said he was inside Lindt café moments before the hostages were taken captive.
On Facebook, his father, Benny Elbaz, who is also a singer, described it as a “Hanukkah miracle.”
“The worst almost happened,” he wrote. “A few minutes before the attack on the cafe in Sydney my friends and I left there. A Hanukkah miracle in Sydney.”
“While thankful, my father and I are praying and hoping for a quick release of all the hostages safely and without harm,” Gad Elbaz said.
American-born Levi Wolff, the rabbi of Sydney’s Central Synagogue, set a message to congregants on Monday afternoon. “We can only imagine the fear and anxiety being experienced by the hostages and by their dear families," he wrote. "Australians are a people of peace and this wonderful country is not accustomed to terror such as this on its own soil. We will not allow these sorts of people to intimidate and overwhelm us.”
Islamic leaders condemned the incident, saying they received the news with “utter shock and horror.”
“We remind everyone the Arabic inscription on the black flag is not representative of a political statement but reaffirms a testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals that represent no one but themselves,” they said in a statement signed by some 50 organizations, including the Australian National Imams Council and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.
Australia’s government elevated its terrorist alert level to high in September, with authorities saying a terror attack was “likely” but not imminent.
The siege follows a series of anti-terror raids across Australia over the past few months. Authorities are tracking up to 200 people who have travelled to Syria and Iraq, apparently to join jihadist organizations. A number of them have returned to Australia.