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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Breaking News On Hostage Situation In Sydney; Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot Addresses Hostage Situation

Aired December 14, 2014 - 20:37   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN HOST: We're expecting Tony Abbott to walk out here, been warning of terrorism for some time.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: We'd like to welcome our viewers in the United States right now. If you're just joining us, there's a hostage situation under way right now in the very heart of Sydney. At least 13 people are being held by at least one gunman, demanding apparently, according to some reports, to speak to the prime minister. That's unconfirmed at this point.

We do know that a flag with Islamic writing was pushed up against the window. On that flag in Arabic was written, "No god worthy of worship except Allah and Mohammad is his messenger."

It was not the ISIS flag but it was in fact an Islamic flag. There is a large exclusion zone around this standoff right now in Sydney. There's also been a number of suspicious packages reported, at least one at the Sydney Opera House, the iconic Sydney Opera House, which has been evacuated.

Airspace over Sydney has been closed down, essentially flights are being diverted around the city. But Qantas says that their flights are still arriving on time but they are now avoiding the airspace immediately above this Martin Place right now.

A reminder to our viewers, this scene that you're looking at right now with the police there, the tactical police, the men with the guns, these are not live images. These are recorded images but the -- so essentially this standoff continues.

It is happening directly across from a television station, our affiliate there, Channel 7 Australia. Their building, in fact, has been evacuated. They are now broadcasting from their Melbourne studios. Their staff have been definitely told to leave, to get to safety.

AMARA WALKER, CNN HOST: Yes, again, these pictures are not live. These pictures were taken just moments ago. But here's what we know what happened. It all started around 9:44 am local time there in Sydney. This is according to Seven Network Australia.

It was a woman who saw somebody looking very suspicious, a man with apparently a blue sports bag. She believed that he had some kind of weapon inside that bag and that is when she called police.

Well, this man was able to enter the Lindt Chocolat Cafe there at Martin Place, the center of Sydney, a pedestrian mall and that is when this hostage situation began to unfold.

But as this has been unfolding, there have been a number of evacuations and this again is according to Seven Network Australia. CNN has not been able to independently confirm this information.

But Seven Network's building was evacuated along with the Sydney Opera House, the state library and New South Wales Supreme Court. Criminal courts have also been evacuated as well and at this time we're waiting for the prime minister of Australia to speak.

VAUSE: And we do know that earlier today he has been in emergency meetings with the national security committee; presumably those meetings are still under way which is why we're waiting for some kind of statement coming from the prime minister.

MANN: Two heart-rending images that we have to tell you about and we have shown one of them already on our air. Some of the hostages pressed up against the glass. You can literally see their hands on the glass of the chocolate shop's front window.

And as heartbreaking as their plight is, there is something equally mysterious at another window from the outside. We were hearing from a reporter at the scene, who said that one of the local tactical teams had several of its men pressed up themselves with their faces looking into the shop.

WALKER: Right.

MANN: Their bodies protected by a large tactical shield, but the way he described it and our imagery was not able to capture it, there were police officers literally pressed up against the glass as if they were looking in at chocolates.

VAUSE: Yes, I just want to clarify that because my understanding of how this would have worked out, if I was in Sydney and that had happened, what I think is going on there, this is a black shield and I think they are trying to stop whoever is inside getting their message out and that's what it is about. It's about blocking the view into that coffee shop because they want to close these people off from the outside world. That's just my hunch.

MANN: That's a good theory. They could probably do it with less danger to themselves.

VAUSE: Possibly. But it also puts them in a good position as well.

MANN: One of the questions we'll be asking about is how this is unfolding because one of the things we heard, is that at least as far as this correspondent was able to learn, there was no contact with the hostage taker yet.

There had been one report and it's now been -- there's some doubt about it, that the hostage taker had gotten in touch with a local radio station. If you heard that earlier, we're not repeating what we were told because there's some question about whether it really was the hostage taker and now subsequent reports suggest that even though this situation has been dragging on for several hours, he said there was no contact with the hostage taker, which would strike you as bizarre, given how many lives are at stake and how close the authorities are physically to the men. And he's honestly close to telephones. So we don't know who the hostage taker is; we don't know what the motive is and as best we have been told, we don't know for sure even if authorities have been in contact with him.

VAUSE: Let's keep in mind here, the worst act of terrorism in Australian history was back in 2002. It happened at Kuta Beach in Bali. More than 200 people died; 88 of them were Australians.

Now that's 2002. So in 12 years since there's been any kind of major terrorism incident. Despite the terror alert being raised recently in the last couple of months, despite sweeps across the country in Victoria, the State of Victoria, the State of New South Wales, the State of Queensland, where hundreds were detained, only two people were arrested.

There was a lot of criticism of the authorities about it at the time. We do know that Tony Abbott, the prime minister, in the last couple of months, has raised the terror alert ever since the Australians committed military force -- they were the first ones to go in to -- with the U.S. coalition against ISIS. They were the first nation to commit actual force, boots on the ground, if you like. They have a fighting force. They've sent a number of fighter jets which are stationed, I think, in Qatar. They have taken part in raids on ISIS as well.

And because of that, the prime minister did in fact raise the security level. They've raised the security level, not just in public places around the country, but also in the parliament, in Canberra, because that was mentioned as an aspirational target.

The prime minister himself, according to some intelligence coming from the police, from the authorities there, was also in fact an aspirational target. So this is a country which has been I guess ramping up to a point where they were expecting something.

There was always this concern that somebody, maybe not directed by ISIS but inspired by ISIS or some other terror group may try to do something. There was a plot to kidnap someone, behead them in Martin Place, which is what we are talking about right now, and drape their body in an ISIS flag. Obviously that never happened.

There were questions about their ability to carry that out. There was no question about the aspiration to carry it out but clearly what we are talking about is Martin Place, a very visible center of the city where, clearly now, whoever is holding these people hostage, now has the attention of the world.

WALKER: Evan Perez, our justice correspondent, got us this information from two U.S. law enforcement officials who were briefed on the matter and they tell our CNN correspondent that U.S. officials are currently working with Australian authorities to lend any assistance to try to identify the suspect. But right now information is very scarce.

We don't have a lot of information or details at this point. The U.S. officials telling CNN that at this stage they only know it is at least one armed suspect that we are talking about. We have been hearing conflicting reports, unconfirmed reports, one to two suspects, one possibly armed with a machete, one possibly armed with a shotgun.

Well, all of that is unknown at this time. The motive, also, has not been established at this point.

VAUSE: And just a reminder, the U.S. consulate is not far from here as well. That, too, has been evacuated along with a number of other buildings, the Supreme Court, the state library, the parliamentary offices for the commonwealth ministers, who are not far from this area. And also the Channel 7 studios, which is just across essentially that pedestrian mall from where this standoff is taking place right now.

WALKER: Just to reiterate the gravity of the situation and the sheer terror that the people must be feeling, if we can show those images again, we need to reiterate over and over, that these are not live pictures that you are looking at. This is obviously a very delicate and very sensitive situation as this hostage situation is unfolding in the heart of Sydney.

But you just look at this image here and it just breaks your heart. It's terrifying. You have people with their arms, their hands, smeared up right against the window. And you just can't imagine what must be going through their minds right now.

MANN: I want to take care of a little bit of housekeeping. If you're joining us here, watching, a crew of anchors and a crew of correspondents that you may not be familiar with, our viewers in the United States may not know whose voices they're hearing because you aren't seeing our faces. You're seeing something much more important right now.

I'm Jonathan Mann. We're with Amara Walker and John Vause and you are watching our unfolding coverage of a hostage situation in Sydney, Australia. We're going to stay with the pictures we have. You won't be seeing much of us because the situation is so dramatic. I just want to remind you if you're watching that we are not bringing you live images.

The police are at work. They have taken up positions around a small corner chocolate shop that is now the scene of a hostage taking. Because security is paramount, and because we want to protect the safety of the hostages and the operation underway to free them, we will not be bringing you live images unless we tell you otherwise.

We're making sure the images we bring you are taped and they have been held back just a little bit to make sure the police can do their work. VAUSE: Absolutely. But we will be bringing you the prime minister live. You can see that small box on the right-hand side of your screen right now. That's from Canberra, Australia, the national capital and from there we are expecting and we have been for some time now a statement from the prime minister, Tony Abbott. He's been meeting all morning with his national security committee in emergency talks as to how to respond to this.

MANN: And I think it's fair to say, you've been making this point, but I'll make it more directly, he may have been a lot more fearful of a situation like this than many other Australians were.

This is a man who has tried very hard to rouse his people to the threat of terrorism and to rouse them to the possibility as yet unrelated to the episode unfolding right now, to the possibly that Australians will travel overseas for training and then bring terrorist training home to Australians.

WALKER: Let's talk about these details then. John Vause, you mentioned earlier. This is on the backdrop of an arrest happening, just today a 25-year-old man arrested on terror charges as part of ongoing investigations into plans for an attack on Australian soil.

And as John's been pointing out, this is unprecedented in Australian history.

And just back in September, Australian authorities, they carried out this really large counterterrorism raid across Western Sydney and in Brisbane and officials said that this counterterrorism raid, which was, I believe, the largest in Australia's history, it quote-unquote "thwarted serious acts of violence" and Tony Abbott said that some of the intelligence that he looked at showed that these suspects -- I believe two were arrested in these terrorism raids -- were planning to carry out these public beheadings, possibly at Martin Place.

And now we have this unfolding inside a chocolate shop, a chocolate cafe. And you see these images over and over, but it's really heart- rending to see innocent victims with their hands plastered up against the window there, no idea what's going to happen next as authorities there have cordoned off the area for blocks now.

You have officers in tactical gear and we're just waiting to see how things unfold but at this time we still don't know the exact number of hostages that are being held inside.