SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – Australia’s Jewish community went into official lockdown after a gunman held hostages inside an inner-city cafe in Sydney.
On Monday, television images 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 Lindt cafe.
Counter-terror agents swarmed the city center, evacuating the Opera House and other key sites as Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the media that 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; more than a dozen others reportedly remained captive over 12 hours after the siege began.
“Jewish institutions across Australia are in lockdown, excursions have been canceled and tight security measures are in place,” a senior Jewish official said.
Although Jewish leaders do not comment on security matters, several did confirm the threat level to the Jewish community had been elevated by the Community Security Group, which handles security for the Jewish communities of Australia, as a result of the 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 Yaalon, said the incident was “most likely the work of an Islamist terrorist organization.”
“We have excellent relations with Australia and help in whatever way we can,” Yaalon told Army Radio. “There are things that can be done from a distance.”
Gad Elbaz, an Israeli Sephardi singer who played a concert in Sydney on Sunday, was inside the Lindt cafe with his father, Benny, moments before the hostages were taken captive.
“While thankful, my father and I are praying and hoping for a quick release of all the hostages safely and without harm,” Elbaz said.
On Facebook, Benny Elbaz 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.”