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Pakistani Militants Kidnap, Then Release, Chinese Nationals in Capital City

Hard-line religious students from a mosque in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, kidnapped nine people including several Chinese and other foreign women early on Saturday, accusing them of so-called "immoral activities." Pakistani authorities have condemned the incident and said they were preparing kidnap charges against at least 25 of the mosque's students. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports that all nine hostages have been released.

Witnesses say scores of young men and women, many waving clubs and bamboo batons, stormed a Chinese health center just past midnight.

The students overwhelmed three Pakistani security guards and then kidnapped nine people, most of them Chinese nationals including at least six women.

The hostages were taken to the nearby Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose hard-line clerics have vowed to impose Taleban style sharia or Islamic law in the capital.

All nine hostages were released Saturday evening.

Chief cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi defended the student raid during a brief news conference just before the men and women were freed. Ghazi insisted the nine were clearly involved in operating a brothel.

"It was taken because it is against the law, against the sharia and against the Islamic values," he said. He added that the nine were released in the interest of maintaining good relations with China.

China is one of Pakistan's key political allies and economic partners.

Pakistani authorities have sharply condemned the incident.

Officials say they are filing kidnapping charges against at least 25 of the mosque's students, but police say none has been taken into custody.

Lal Masjid has repeatedly challenged the government's authority, and, so far, has done so with relative impunity. Hundreds of students from the mosque's religious school have occupied a nearby children's library since January.

Hundreds more joined what they called an anti-vice campaign in April and kidnapped several Pakistani women they accused of running a brothel. A month later, armed students seized seven police officers patrolling the streets outside the mosque.

Each time the government has threatened reprisals, but each time it has backed down in favor of negotiated settlements.

This is the first time the students have targeted foreigners, and security analysts here in Pakistan say the move will likely increase the pressure on the government to crack down on the mosque.

Officials say they want to avoid any violent confrontation that could injure the women and children inside the mosque compound.

Critics say the ongoing standoff highlights the government's failure to crack down on religious militants.