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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 March 2006, 19:05 GMT
Ex-teacher seizes French students
Colbert de Torcy secondary school, Sable-sur-Sarthe, France
The students held hostage were aged 16 to 18
A former teacher has taken 21 students and two adults hostage at a school in France, officials said.

The man, who is armed with a handgun, is holding the hostages at a school in Sable-sur-Sarthe in western France.

The 33-year-old man has been out of work since losing his job as a supply teacher at the school two years ago.

Police have surrounded the building and officers are negotiating with the man, who has barricaded himself and the hostages in a classroom.

He looked normal when he walked in... We let him in because we knew who he was
Bernadette Mercier
School receptionist

The man reportedly entered the school during the afternoon. The students are said to be aged 16 to 18 and are being held in a classroom on an upper floor.

Jean Luc Prigent, head of security for the Le Mans region that includes the school, told the BBC that the hostages were being allowed to use their mobile telephones to communicate with family and friends.

Vincent, 17, a student outside the school, told the AFP news agency he had exchanged text messages with an 18-year-old student named Elise, who described to him her fear as she was taken hostage with classmates.

Relatives outside the school in Sable-sur-Sarthe, France
Hostages are using mobile phones to communicate with relatives

She said the man had calmed down and was letting the students call their parents.

'Depressed state'

A police official said the hostage-taker "wants to talk to the press about his employment problems".

The man had asked to speak to the former French education minister and local mayor, Francois Fillon, who is the architect of a controversial education reform programme, police said.

Mr Fillon is currently in London but the UK government has provided him with a plane so that he can urgently return to France, according to French La Chaine Info television.

A receptionist at the Colbert de Torcy secondary school told the BBC News website: "He looked normal when he walked in... We let him in because we knew who he was."

She said he was not known to be violent.

"He had a sense of humour," said the receptionist, Bernadette Mercier.

She added: "He was very depressed when he left two years ago."

The school, which has about 1,500 students enrolled, has been evacuated, and crisis centres for parents and students have been set up.

French special forces are en route from Paris to the scene by helicopter.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, on a visit to Guadeloupe, said he was following the situation closely.

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