Pakistani religious students, standing outside Islamabad's Red Mosque on Sunday, are demanding the government impose Islamic rule. ((Anjum Naveed/Associated Press))

Pressure is mounting in Pakistan's government on Wednesday to end a lengthy standoff between police and heavily armed radical Islamic students at an Islamabad mosque.

Clerics at the Red Mosque have been at odds with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, since their followers launched an anti-vice campaign in March reminiscent of the tactics of the hardline Taliban government.

The students raised the stakes on Friday by seizing two police officers, and the mosque's firebrand prayer leader threatened to declare holy war against the government if security forces intervened.

The students are demanding the government impose Islamic rule.

Editorials in several newspapers across the country called for action and the arrest of the mosque's leaders and the students, the CBC's Stephen Puddicombe reported Wednesday.

But Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's deputy cleric, shrugged off the calls for arrests to be made.

"This is not a crime. Who did the action? The government. Time and again they have been kidnapping," he said, alleging the government engaged in torture.

Fears of confrontation

The police and army have flexed their muscles and surrounded the mosque on several occasions since the kidnappings took place, but have decided against storming the building. Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan has said the government favoured negotiating an end to the standoff.

Fahmida Ashraf, director of the South Asia Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, told CBC News that Pakistani authorities are desperate to avoid a highly visible bloodbath in the capital's downtown area.

"I think the government has realized it is not possible to contain the situation with a military action," Ashraf told CBC News.

Ghazi noted the students have received significant support across Pakistan and around the world, and also warned of dire consequences if the government or police try to take the mosque by force.

"If they try to suppress, there is a likelihood that there will be a Talibanization."

As part of their anti-vice campaign, the mosque's hardline clerics have warned nearby video and music shop owners to close their businesses and abducted a woman and her relatives for allegedly running a brothel, forcing her to make a public confession.