Busy Sydney streets fall silent during tense hostage standoff

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) — On any ordinary Monday, the scene of a tense police standoff in Sydney would have been packed with people crisscrossing Martin Place on their way to work, home and the shops.

But this Monday, a week before Christmas, the inner city streets fell silent as an armed man held an undisclosed number of hostages captive in the popular Lindt café.

“It is eerily quiet for the center of the city which is normally humming with traffic and pedestrians… people would be normally walking the streets. They’ve roped off several blocks around Martin Place,” said CNN’s Anna Coren, who was about a block from the scene.

Martin Place is a paved traffic-free zone, a pedestrian-friendly promenade a few blocks from the ferry terminal at Sydney Harbour. It’s where people go to meet, have coffee and catch a train.

Heavily armed police

Outside the Lindt shop, heavily armed police, some in camouflage gear and armed with sniper rifles, took position as negotiators attempted to talk with a man inside described by police as an “armed offender.”

Passersby were herded back behind police barriers, while surrounding buildings were evacuated.

Opposite the Lindt shop is the entrance to the Martin Place underground train station where trains are no longer stopping.

Beyond the train station are the studios of Australian network Channel 7, whose huge glass windows act as the backdrop for early morning programming, and where crowds are encouraged to gather.

In the early hours of the standoff, the network, a CNN affiliate, turned its cameras around to film across the street. It captured the images Channel 7 producer Patrick Byrne described as “shocking and chilling.”

“People were putting their hands up against the panes of glass at the café. This was just extraordinary,” Byrne told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Moments later a black flag bearing white Islamic writing was pressed against the window, drawing gasps from the newsroom, he said.

“We’ve shut off the monitors that face onto Martin Place for fear that people inside the café might be able to see the pictures broadcast,” Byrne added.

‘Surreal scene’

Few live images have been broadcast of the café, amid police warnings not to disclose operational matters.

From the scene, Macquarie Radio Network reporter Glenn Wheeler described the scene as “very surreal.”

“There are literally hundreds or thousands of people wandering around with this expression of bewilderment,” he told 2GB radio station. “We can’t believe this is happening.”

He said hundreds, if not thousands, of people had assembled in nearby Hyde Park after being told to leave the area around Martin Place.

Wheeler recounted a conversation he had with two German tourists who said, “We thought Sydney was safe.”

It was a sentiment that was apparent in the street and on social media.

While the country’s operating under a “high” terror alert, a high-profile attack right in the central business district of Sydney was unexpected and unprecedented.

Authorities are not explicitly referring to the incident as a “terror attack” but New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police are on “a footing that would be consistent with a terrorist alert.”

Sydney residents expressed their shock and dismay.

“It’s probably the first time in Australian history that something this major in regards to a terrorist threat has happened,” Joshua Martin told Reuters.

‘High’ terror alert

Monday’s incident, and its apparent link to Islamic militants, follows dozens of police terror raids in the city that have strained relations with the local Muslim community.

Dozens of attacks have been reported on Muslim targets, including mosques and women wearing the hijab.

Amid reports that as many as 100 Australians had left the country to support ISIS’ quest to create an Islamic State, authorities introduced tough new terror laws.

In September, Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised the country’s terror threat level to “high” but said there had been “no specific intelligence of particular plots.”

“What we do have is intelligence that there are people with the intent and capability to mount attacks,” Abbott said. A week later, he announced a terror plot to decapitate members of the public had been foiled.