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Standoff in Russia school siege

Group threatens to kill children

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Russian troops surround a school in southern Russia where students are being held hostage.
Chechnya (Russia)

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A tense standoff between Russian authorities and attackers who seized at least 100 hostages -- possibly as many as 400 -- at a school in southern Russia continued Thursday with little progress reported.

Four people were killed in the initial attack.

Hundreds of armed troops have surrounded the school in the town of Beslan, near the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya where rebels and Russian forces have battled each other for a decade.

Negotiators were reportedly in touch with the hostage-takers but have yet to reach a deal on getting food and water to those inside, who include children, parents and teachers.

The attackers, armed with guns and suicide-bomb belts, seized the school in dramatic fashion on Wednesday, the first day of the Russian school year.

The hostage-takers have threatened to kill the children -- who range in age from 7 to 17 -- if an assault is launched.

While authorities have been tight-lipped about those behind the attack, the gunmen have reportedly demanded the release of Chechen prisoners captured during a June raid, and the Russian withdrawal of all forces from Chechnya.

Russian troops have battled separatist guerrillas in Chechnya since 1994.

The hostage-takers have also reportedly passed on a note containing the names of people they are prepared to hold talks with, including the leaders of Ossetia and Ingushetia as well as a doctor who was involved in negotiations with Chechens who seized a Moscow theater in 2002.

Interfax said the doctor was on his way to Beslan.

Time magazine reporter Paul Quinn-Judge reported early Thursday that several hundred relatives of the hostages have gathered at the town's main community hall.

"The mood here is very subdued, very quiet. Hardly anybody is speaking, except in a low murmur," he said.

Quinn-Judge said the widespread assumption in the community was that they are rebels with links to Islamic radicals in Chechnya.

Russian authorities said many of the attackers were women, armed with explosives belts.

Interfax reported at least 100 people inside the school with the hostage takers; Russian state television said the number was as high as 300. Other reports put the number at 400.

Quoting emergency officials, Interfax reported that half of the hostages were children.

Interfax said the hostage-takers had threatened to kill 50 children for each of their number killed by Russian forces and 20 for each wounded.

The raid was reminiscent of the October 2002 Moscow theater siege, when Chechen rebels took more than 700 hostages during the middle of a musical, threatened to kill them and demanded an end to the war in Chechnya.

Many of those attackers were women, with explosives belts strapped to their body, while the men were armed with pistols and rifles. Two massive bombs had also been placed in the theater.

That standoff ended when Russian forces piped poison gas into the theater to knock out everyone inside. But more than 120 of the hostages and 41 of the attackers were killed, most of them from the gas because authorities did not have enough antidote on hand to offset the symptoms.

The current hostage standoff follows a bloody week in Russia, in which a female suicide bomber killed nine people outside a Moscow subway station and two airliners were downed by two suspected Chechen female suicide bombers on August 24, killing all 89 people aboard the planes.

Russian officials have said the new wave of attacks was an attempt at revenge for last weekend's elections in Chechnya in which a Kremlin-backed candidate won the presidency.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the attacks mark a declaration of war.

"It is a different kind of war, where you cannot see your enemy and where there is no front line, but nonetheless this is an entirely real threat," Ivanov told reporters. "Russia is not the only country that faces this new threat."

In an interview with CNN sister network CNN Turk, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday linked the country's recent terror attacks to Chechen rebels and al Qaeda.

"Two civilian planes were crashed by terrorist gangs that had links to the al Qaeda," Putin said from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

"Separatists in northern Caucasus are acting not in line with the Chechen people, but for their own filthy interests. They have links with international terrorism."

The Kremlin press agency said U.S. President George Bush called Putin to offer any assistance that could help secure the release of the hostages.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the two leaders spoke for about five minutes and that Bush condemned the taking of hostages and the other recent terrorist acts in Russia.

Buchan said the two leaders expressed "their mutual commitment to defeating global terrorism."

"The U.S. stands with the Russian people," Buchan said.

The U.N. Security Council has condemned "in the strongest terms" the seizing of the hostages following an emergency session on Wednesday.

A statement demands the "immediate and unconditional release of all hostages" and urges all nations to cooperate with Russian authorities "in their efforts to find and bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks."

Russia had called for an urgent meeting of the Council looking for a statement that would send a "strong signal to the whole world," according to Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Andrei Denisov, and for support in its own fight against terrorism.

The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said four people were killed and nine were wounded in the initial attack on the the 11-grade primary school. The attack took place about 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) Wednesday with at least 15 armed attackers taking part.

Video from the scene showed hundreds of Russian troops mobilizing near the school. At one point, a young girl and an older lady were seen running from the school into the arms of the special forces.

Residents and journalists have been told not to get within 150 meters (yards) of the school because they could be shot.

Beslan is 19 miles (30 km) north of Vladikavkaz in southern Russia, which borders the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya.

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