Three people, including the hostage-taker, are dead after police stormed a Sydney cafe where a number of people were held for more than 16 hours, New South Wales police said.
Heavily-armed police descended on the cafe shortly after 2 a.m. local time.
Citing police sources, Australian media outlets have identified the gunman as Man Haron Monis.
Monis, 50, is an Iranian refugee and self-styled religious leader.
He was known to police and had been charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and with sexual assault on a young woman who sought his spiritual services.
Police said a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman were also killed.
One of the victims was Sydney lawyer and mother-of-three Katrina Dawson.
“Katrina was one of our best and brightest barristers who will be greatly missed by her colleagues and friends” Jane Needham, president of the New South Wales Bar Association, said in a statement.
The other victim was identified in Australian media as the manager of the cafe, Tori Johnson.
Police wouldn’t say if the two were caught in crossfire, or shot by their captor.
Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said three women were treated in hospital for gunshot wounds and were in stable condition. A police officer was treated for shotgun pellet wounds and discharged, she said.
A 35-year-old woman was also taken to hospital as a precaution.
Amid the crisis, hundreds of police officers, some of them armed with sniper rifles, shut down a usually bustling area in Australia’s most populous city.
Chilling images from local media showed people, believed to be hostages, with their hands pressed against the glass of the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney’s central business district.
Footage showed them holding up a black flag with Arabic writing on it that reads: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” That flag was different from the one used by the terrorist group ISIL.
During the standoff, the gunman was said to be demanding an ISIL flag and a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The reported demands emerged after five hostages managed to flee the building on Monday night.
The gunman’s requests were made through hostages who contacted several media organizations, CNN affiliate Sky News Australia reported. Police said they were aware of the reports but declined to confirm what demands had been made.
After hours of tension and uncertainty, three people were seen sprinting out of the cafe and into a group of police officers.
Later two women dashed out of the cafe and along the street to the waiting police.
“Those people are now being assessed to ensure that their health is OK and then police will also speak to them,” said New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn. She said police negotiators are in touch with the hostage taker.
Chris Reason, a correspondent for CNN affiliate Seven Network, was allowed to return to the broadcaster’s evacuated offices near the cafe.
He said he could see the gunman pacing past the windows, describing him as unshaven, wearing a white shirt and black cap and carrying a shotgun.
Following the escape of some of the hostages, Reason said the gunman became “extremely agitated” when he realized what had happened and “started screaming orders” at the remaining hostages.
Unverified videos surface on YouTube
Unverified videos surfaced on YouTube that appeared to show some of the hostages repeating the suspect’s apparent demands to the camera.
The apparent hostages in the video claimed that there are bombs around Martin Place and also at Circular Quay, a harbour that serves as a major transport and tourism hub that includes a railway station. If the demands were met, the people claimed in the video, the bombs would not be ignited.
The people in the unverified videos are standing in front of a Lindt poster. There is also someone standing behind them who is holding up an Islamic flag with his or her face covered.
The original posts have been deleted from YouTube and there are reports that the police requested their removal.
Muslim leaders condemn hostage taking
The writing on the flag in the window stoked fears that the crisis in Sydney could be linked to Islamic extremists. Australia, which is part of the international coalition fighting ISIS in the Middle East, said in September that it had foiled a plot by Islamic militants to carry out a public execution.
Muslim leaders in Australia condemned the hostage taking, calling it “a criminal act.”
“Such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam,” the Grand Mufti of Australia and the Australian National Imams Council said in a statement on Facebook.
‘That could be me’
The hostages appeared to include staff and customers who were taken captive as commuters were heading to work on Monday morning in the Martin Place area, where big institutions like the Reserve Bank of Australia are located.
One employee of the cafe who was due to work a later shift Monday said she was deeply shaken when she saw footage of some of her colleagues pressed against the window.
“That could be me, right there, standing at that window, standing there, holding that flag, being told not to move,” Kathryn Chee, 25, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “It’s just horrifying.”
Chris Kenny, an editor at The Australian newspaper, said he was at the cafe Monday morning. He left shortly before the siege started.
“As police quickly swarmed and cleared the area, I turned to see a man against the window, facing out with his hands raised,” he wrote in his account of the incident. “At first I was relieved thinking this was the gunman responding to police — but soon the awful realization the customers were being forced against the windows.”
Bustling area eerily quiet
Before some of the hostages fled, Seven Network reported that at least 13 people were being held at the cafe, but police declined to say how many were in there, citing operational reasons. Burn said it was fewer than 30.
Police barricaded off streets and evacuated buildings near the cafe, bringing an eerie quiet to a district typically buzzing with pedestrians and vehicles.
The Martin Place train station was shut down, according to police. They urged people to stay away from the area, but some local office workers gathered at the scene to try to find out what was going on.
The buildings evacuated included the U.S. Consulate General, spokeswoman Alicia Edwards said. All personnel have been accounted for, although it’s not known whether there are any U.S. citizens among the hostages. U.S. President Barack Obama has been briefed on the situation.
The company that runs the cafe, Lindt Chocolate Cafe Australia, said it was “deeply concerned over this serious incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff and customers involved and all their friends and families.”
With files from The Associated Press; Jethro Mullen and Anna Coren (CNN)