The hostages were forced to display an Islamic flag bearing the shehada (the Muslim affirmation of faith) at the windows of the shops.
The shehada is frequently found on flags belonging to jihadist groups. The Islamic creed reads “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is his messenger.”
“There are people who wish to do us harm,” Abbott said in a press conference from Canberra Monday, several hours after the incident began.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society. Nothing should ever change that,” he said, urging people to “go about their business.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the individuals caught up in the distressing, terrifying situation,” the PM said, before urging the media to “exercise caution in their reporting.”
An armed man bearing a black headband could be seen though the doors of the cafe.
It is unclear how many armed persons were inside the cafe, but initial reports said not more than one. There were conflicting reports about the weapons used by the man, with some saying a pistol and others saying a sawed off handgun. There were unconfirmed reports that the man also had explosives.
Australian police said they were dealing with an “armed incident” and were attempting to make contact with those inside the cafe.