Three college students have been arrested in connection with fires that were set at nine rural churches in the southern state of Alabama last month. Investigators believe the fires started as a prank that got out of hand.

Three young men, aged 19 and 20, are in federal custody in connection with fires that law enforcement officials say were intentionally set at nine Alabama churches in early February. A criminal complaint charges the three with conspiracy to damage buildings by fire.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley said he was relieved to learn that the arrests had been made.

"It's a good day when we can tell the people of Alabama that we believe that this is an isolated incident," said Governor Riley. "We don't think there is any conspiracy against organized religion or against the Baptists or against religious beliefs in particular. I think that today, Alabama and all of the faith-based community in this state can rest a little easier."

Federal prosecutors said the youths admitted setting the fires. One of the young men described the first five fires as a joke that got out of hand after an overnight deer hunting trip. The students said they set fires in another part of the state to confuse law enforcement officials, but investigators matched tire tracks left by a vehicle at six of the burned churches.

Carmen Adams, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Birmingham, said the investigation moved fairly quickly as hundreds of tips were received from the public.

"I hope that the message is sent to the citizens of Alabama that church arsons are taken very seriously and they're investigated very aggressively," Adams said.

A federal grand jury will decide exactly what charges the three youths will face. If convicted of conspiracy, they could receive a mandatory five-year prison sentence for each of the nine churches that were burned.