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Siege negotiations 'break down'

Hostage-takers switch off mobile phones

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

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A reporter on the scene of the school siege in southern Russia has told CNN that negotiations have broken down, and militants holding hundreds of children hostage have turned off their mobile phones.

Hundreds of armed troops in tanks, armored vehicles and on foot 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.

Time magazine reporter Paul Quinn-Judge, who is some 100 meters from the school, reported Thursday the hostage-takers had turned off their mobile phones, and were refusing to answer the landline to the school.

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

The hostages include children, parents and teachers -- and the hostage-takers have threatened to kill the children if an assault is launched.

The children range in age from 7 to 17.

Quinn-Judge reported local residents are disputing one official count of at least 350 children taken hostage, saying the number is closer to 700.

Residents are angry with local officials that they have not been able to confirm how many hostages are inside the school, and heckled one official during a news conference Thursday morning.

"When local officials started to say well, they didn't think there were more than 350 children in the school, people were shouting things like: 'You don't know yet? You can't find out? How big is this city? What do you mean 300? That is a lie -- have you no conscience?'" Quinn-Judge said.

Sporadic gunfire came from the school Thursday, Quinn-Judge reported, although the reason for the gunfire was not clear.

"Either they're just firing to unnerve people or they're firing because they see some sort of movements of troops they don't like," he told CNN.

"It's still is very much a standoff, and it looks like it's going to stay that way for some time."

Russian President Vladimir Putin canceled an upcoming trip to Turkey to deal with the standoff, sources in his office told CNN Thursday.

Several hundred relatives of the hostages had gathered at the town's main community hall, and Thursday took to milling about the streets of Beslan in hopes of learning any new information.

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

While authorities have been tight-lipped about those behind the attack, 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.

The raid was reminiscent of the October 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, 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 in 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 Tuesday 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, 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.

At the United Nations, the Security Council went into an emergency session Wednesday evening and condemned "in the strongest terms" the seizing of the hostages.

The U.N. 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."

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. (1 a.m. ET) with at least 15 armed attackers taking part.

Earlier, reports indicated as many as nine may have been killed and 11 wounded, but officials revised the numbers.

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.

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 hostage-takers reportedly demanded the release of more than two dozen prisoners captured during a raid on Chechens in southern Russia in June and 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 their cell phone numbers and a note containing the names of people they are prepared to hold talks with, including the leaders of the regions of Ossetia and Ingushetia as well as a doctor who was involved in negotiations with Chechens who seized the Moscow theater in 2002.

Interfax said the doctor was on his way to Beslan.

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

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