Dozens arrested for police hostage

Islamabad - Pakistani authorities have detained about 40 Islamist students amid a stand-off over two police officers held hostage at an extremist mosque in the capital Islamabad, officials said on Monday.

The men were arrested on Sunday as they tried to go to the Red Mosque, where hardline students are locked in a three-day confrontation with armed security forces, government spokesperson Brigadier Javed Cheema said.

"The 40 or so arrests that have been made were of potential troublemakers," Cheema told AFP. "Security has been beefed up at entry and exit points of the capital to make sure that unwanted people do not enter."

Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao denied that authorities were planning to storm the mosque to rescue the hostages.

"The administration is trying its best to secure the release of its kidnapped police officials through peaceful means," he told state media. "It is the only way to defuse the precarious situation."

But Islamabad police chief Iftikhar Ahmed Chaudhry, who confirmed the arrests, refused to rule out a raid. "All options are open and these options are being considered," he said.

Students at a religious school attached to the mosque seized four policemen on Friday.

Two were freed the next day after a deal was struck with authorities to release four extremists, although the four have not yet been handed over.

Clerics say the remaining two officers will only be released when a total of 11 men detained by the government are freed.

"We fear that the authorities may carry out the operation in the next couple of days," the mosque's deputy leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi told AFP.

"The remaining two police officers are still in the custody of our students and will be freed only after the government releases our students as per the understanding reached between us and local authorities."

The Red Mosque's defiance in recent months has put pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to live up to his vow to tackle rising militancy in this Islamic republic of 160 million people.

Last month the mosque set up a self-styled Islamic court which issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against Pakistan's female tourism minister for hugging a French paragliding instructor after a charity jump.

The mosque's male and female students have also launched anti-vice patrols, targeting music and video shops.

And they still occupy a government children's library that they took in January in protest against the demolition of mosques that the authorities said were built illegally.

Sherpao said that the government had shown restraint over the radical students' actions for the past four months to avoid bloodshed.

Commentators have seen the problems with the mosque, which is in the heart of Islamabad, as an example of the creeping "Talibanisation" of Pakistan by Islamic militants.

Musharraf said in a recent interview with private Aaj television that militancy was becoming more violent in the country. - AFP

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