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Pakistan's President Under Pressure to Act Against Mosque Kidnapping Police

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is under increasing pressure to crack down on a radical Islamist mosque in the country's capital, whose students have abducted at least seven police officers since Friday. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.

Five of the seven officers kidnapped by students at Islamabad's Lal Masjid Mosque have been released, two remain captive, and a standoff outside the mosque is in its fifth day.

The students who seized the policemen Friday insist the only way out is for the government to release 11 of their colleagues, who they say were arrested in the past few weeks.

The police have threatened to raid the mosque twice in recent days, both times shutting down main roads into the city and deploying hundreds of armed security forces onto streets around the mosque.

But action has been delayed while negotiations between the government and the mosque's pro-Taleban clerics drag on.

Opposition leaders are accusing the government of appeasing radical forces, and reneging on promises to take a tough stand against religious extremists. Privately, officers at the scene insist their patience is running out.

Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema said the government has been using "maximum restraint" in the matter.

"The government wants to resolve the issue amicably, through dialogue, but let me make one thing very clear: there shall be no trade-off," he said.

Lal Masjid has repeatedly challenged the authority of President Pervez Musharraf's government's in recent months, and up to now has done so with relative impunity.

The mosque's clerics have vowed to impose a Taleban-style law in the capital, and have threatened massive suicide bomb attacks if the government interferes.

Hundreds of students from the mosque's religious school have occupied a nearby children's library since January. Hundreds more swept through one of Islamabad's main market areas last month, warning shop owners against selling music or movies. They later kidnapped several women they accused of running a brothel.

Each time, the government has threatened reprisals, but has ultimately backed down in favor of a negotiated settlement.

In an interview late Tuesday, President Musharraf defended his decision to pursue negotiations with Lal Masjid's leaders.

He said the mosque's supporters were well armed, and any government action could result in significant bloodshed - an outcome he said his political opponents would almost certainly try to exploit.

Political analyst and former general Talat Masood says the situation is bad news for President Musharraf, who has sold himself - both at home and abroad - as an essential bulwark against Islamic militants.

"It looks as though the government has become impotent [and] incapable of handling issues like these, where these extremists are gaining ascendancy," he said.

Masood notes that President Musharraf is already on the defensive, after suspending the country's top judge on March 9, on what the president's critics charge were politically motivated grounds.