SYDNEY: A sunny day on the bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Sydney's financial district - usually crowded with sharp-suited office workers and selfie-taking tourists - turned into a terror-filled affair when an armed gunman took several people hostage inside the chocolate-themed Lindt cafe in Martin Place.
In a chilling contrast to the street's festive air, hostages were made to stand against the popular store's window display for hours, holding up a banner with Arabic writing over a "Merry Christmas" sign.
"It's kind of shocking for everyone," local worker Goldie Jamshidi told AFP as a SWAT team and snipers kept a watchful eye on the store. "I came to work and then I found out that this incident happened," she said.
A Reuters report said grainy images of the assailant showed a headband-wearing middle-aged man in a white shirt.
A cafe worker, identified as Bruno, who was supposed to start work at 10am, described the suspect to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Bruno had a glimpse of the man before he turned away: "I walked up to the door and then everyone was sitting down. And the door is locked, which was pretty weird, because it's never locked — and there was one guy walking around with a hat and a beard."
As evening fell, five hostages escaped rushed into the arms of waiting paramilitary police, as police helicopters hovered above.
Another office worker, Rebecca Courtney, described the incident as "kind of overwhelming", especially after the "drama a few months ago". That drama centred on a thwarted terror attack that involved the public beheading of a random civilian at Martin Place.
Vehicle-for-hire service Uber came under fire when their surge pricing mechanism, meant to encourage more drivers to come online and pick passengers up from the area, caused rides out of downtown Sydney to quadruple to a minimum of AU$100 (RM288).
They later offered to refund rides and announced that Uber Sydney would provide free rides out of the central business district "to help Sydneysiders get home safely".
A more heartening development was the much-lauded #IllRideWithYou Twitter movement, which topped the global trends list within hours.
User @MichaelJames_TV had tweeted about a Sydney public transport incident, where a hijab-wearing woman removed her religious attire after news of the hostage incident broke for fear of reprisal — only for a concerned commuter to offer her company.
Another Twitter user known as Sir Tessa then suggested the hashtag, prompting residents to offer their company to Muslim Australians during public transport commutes, with some providing lifts in private vehicles in a show of solidarity.
The hostage-taker has since been identified as Iranian refugee Man Haron Monis, who has a long history of criminal convictions.
Media reports detail how he faced 40 indecent and sexual assault charges, including 22 counts of aggravated sexual assault and 14 counts of aggravated indecent assault relating to six women.
Man Haron also faced charges of sexually assaulting a woman in 2002 and of joining his current wife to stab his ex-wife to death in Sydney last year.