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UPDATE: A tense hostage situation in the heart of Sydney, Australia's central business district appears to have come to an end.  Gunfire was heard as police stormed the chocolate shop and cafe where an armed man took over a dozen employees and customers hostage on Sunday.  At the same time, a number of hostages were seen fleeing the cafe.  Some of them had to be taken away on stretchers.  There's been no word yet from authorities as to the fate of the gunman, identified as a 49-year-old Iranian refugee.  

UPDATE:  There seems to have been a significant development in the hostage situation at a cafe in Sydney.  For hours, heavily armed police had established a security perimeter around the shop as an armed man took hostages and forced them to display an Islamic flag.  Recently, there was the sound of several shots being fired and a number of hostages were seen fleeing the cafe.  One person was seen being carried away from the scene. 

UPDATE: Multiple media outlets are now identifying the hostage taker as a 49 year old Iranian refugee named Man Haron Monis.  Police describe Monis as a self-styled Muslim cleric who also claims to be a peace activist.  He's been holding over a dozen people against their will since Sunday.  Five have managed to escape.  It's also being reported that Monis, who often uses the name "Sheikh Haron," is currently out on bail after being charged last year as an accessory to murder.  

(NEWSER) – Ominous developments in Sydney, where an unknown number of people are being held hostage in a chocolate shop and cafe: A gunman has contacted multiple media outlets and demanded both an ISIS flag and a phone call to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, according to Sky News Australia, and the lights in the cafe have now been switched off. 

Five hostages have escaped, but authorities, who have been in contact with what is now believed to be a lone gunman, aren't sure how many people remain in the Lindt Chocolat Cafe, CNN reports. Witnesses say there are around 15 hostages and the gunman is forcing them to stand pressed to the cafe glass for two-hour stints, reports 9News, which has been contacted by two hostages to relay the gunman's demands. According to Ten Eyewitness News, which has also spoken to hostages, the gunman says he has planted four bombs—two in the cafe and two elsewhere in downtown Sydney. In other developments:

  • More than 11 hours after the siege began, police say that the gunman is continuing to negotiate with them and have warned against reprisal attacks on Muslims, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. "Our plan, our only goal tonight is to get those people who are currently caught in that building out of there," New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters. "Rest assured, we are doing all we can to set you free."
  • Staff at 7News were able to observe the gunman from their offices. They say the gunman has what appears to be a pump-action shotgun, became "extremely agitated" when he realized five hostages had escaped, and the faces of remaining hostages appear "pained, strained, eyes red and raw."

Photo: Getty Images

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