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MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (Reuters) - A hostage-taking by a gunman accused of fatally shooting a school bus driver and then disappearing with a young boy into an underground bunker entered its third night on Thursday in a rural corner of southeast Alabama.
Law enforcement officials remained tight-lipped about the standoff near Midland City, a small town about 30 miles west of Alabama's border with Georgia, after cancelling a planned news conference.
Officials from local, state and federal agencies have been camped out by a dirt road near the bunker since Tuesday, when authorities say a gunman demanded that a student be let off a bus carrying more than 20 children home from school.
When 66-year-old driver Charles Albert Poland Jr. refused, the suspect shot him several times and fled the scene with a kindergarten student whom he appeared to have grabbed at random, officials said.
On Thursday, negotiators continued to communicate with the gunman as he remained holed up with the 5-year-old on his rural property. Area schools were closed for the remainder of the week, and residents held vigils to pray for a peaceful end to the standoff.
A scheduled evening press conference was cancelled, with law enforcement officials saying they had nothing new to report.
Michael Senn, a pastor, said the suspect, identified by neighbours as 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, apparently had equipped the bunker with electricity, TV and two to three weeks' worth of supplies.
Authorities have not officially released the names of the suspected gunman or the child, who they believe is unharmed.
"We're just encouraging everybody in this country to come together and pray for the safety, protection and the quick release of this child," Senn said.
Senn, who lives near the private dirt road that runs onto Dykes' property, told the Dothan Eagle newspaper that authorities had been able to maintain contact with Dykes through some sort of pipe, possibly made of PVC, leading into the bunker.
"They've been talking to him pretty regularly," he said.
The shooting and hostage scenario happened while a national debate rages over gun violence, especially in schools, after a gunman shot dead 20 students and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
An Alabama lawmaker who had talked with the hostage's family said on a TV interview that they were "holding on by a thread" but comforted that the boy appeared to be receiving needed medication while held captive.
The suspect and boy, who turns 6 next week, apparently did not know each other before the shooting, said state Representative Steve Clouse.
"I think it's just a random kidnapping here for this man," Clouse said.
Neighbours said they had seen Dykes digging the bunker in his yard in the past couple of years, and recalled he often carried a shotgun and acted aggressively toward people and animals.
Ronda Wilbur, who lives across the street from Dykes, referred to him as "Mean Man" and complained he had killed her family dog by beating it with a lead pipe and then bragged about it to her husband.
Dykes had been due to appear for a bench trial on Wednesday after his arrest last month on a menacing charge involving another neighbour, court records showed.
The neighbour, James Edward Davis, told CNN the arrest stemmed from an incident on December 10 when Dykes pulled a gun on him and his young daughter. Davis said Dykes was upset because he believed Davis had driven onto his property.
Dykes' decision to take a child hostage in an underground bunker made the tense situation confronting police even more complex, said Brad Garrett, a former hostage negotiator for the FBI.
"Usually they can utilize cameras to see into buildings, but with a bunker - with impenetrable walls and one way in and one way out - that's not possible," said Garrett, who now runs an investigative consulting firm based in Virginia.
"It reduces a tactical team's ability to use the element of surprise," he added.
The adult children of the slain school bus driver remembered their father, a military veteran, as a quiet man who avoided the limelight and would have shirked at being called a hero for trying to keep the students on his bus out of harm's way.
"My dad would be like, 'what's all this fuss about? I just did what I had to do,'" son Aaron Poland said on Thursday. "My dad died to protect the children."
Additional reporting by Kaija Wilkinson; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Walsh