SYDNEY – ­­­­­­­Five people have fled from a Sydney cafe where a gunman took an unknown number of hostages at the height of Monday morning rush hour. Two people inside the cafe were earlier seen holding up a flag containing an Islamic declaration of faith.

The first development came six hours after the hostage crisis began, when three men were seen running from a fire exit of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney.

Shortly afterward, two women, one after another, sprinted from the cafe and into the arms of heavily armed police. Both were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.

“We do not have any information that suggests that anybody is harmed at this stage,” New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said, after the first three hostages had emerged.

It was not clear how many people remained inside the cafe located at Martin Place, a plaza in the heart of the city’s financial and shopping district that is packed with holiday shoppers this time of year. Many of those inside the cafe would have been taken hostage as they stopped in for their morning coffees.

New South Wales state Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police did not know the gunman’s motivation.

“We have not yet confirmed it is a terrorism-related event,” Scipione said. “We’re dealing with a hostage situation with an armed offender and we are dealing with it accordingly.”

Burn said that police negotiators have made contact with the gunman.

Hundreds of police flooded into the area, streets were closed and offices evacuated. The public was told to stay away from Martin Place, home to the state premier’s office, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of the nation’s largest banks. The state parliament house is a few blocks away.

Television footage shot through the cafe’s windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.

The Shahada translates as “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger.” It is considered the first of Islam’s five pillars of faith, and is similar to the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have expropriated the Shahada in their own black flag.

“We don’t know whether this is politically motivated, although obviously there are some indications that it could be,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in the nation’s capital, Canberra. “We have to appreciate that even in a society such as ours, there are people who would wish to do us harm.”

Heavily armed officers were lined up outside the cafe, and a man with a backpack inside the cafe could be seen walking back and forth in front of the glass doors.

“We are at this stage continuing to secure and make sure that we are doing all we can to bring this to a peaceful outcome,” said Scipione, the police commissioner.

ional Security Committee of Cabinet met to be briefed on the situation.

“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” Abbott said. “Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society — nothing should ever change that. And that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.”