The rape of Mukhtaran Mai and the subsequent acquittal of five of the six men convicted of attacking her provoked an international outcry and focused attention on the plight of women in rural Pakistan.

Mai is appealing in the Supreme Court against the acquittal of the men by a provincial court in March.

A three-judge Supreme Court bench on Tuesday suspended the ruling of the provincial high court overturning the convictions and ordered the arrest of all of the accused.

"They shall be treated as under-trial prisoners," said Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Pakistan's acting chief justice, in a brief order.

Council ordered rape

Mai, 33, was gang-raped on the orders of the traditional village council after her brother - who was 12 at the time - was judged to have offended the honour of a powerful clan by befriending a woman from the tribe.

Feudal and tribal laws still hold sway in many rural areas of Pakistan. Six men were originally convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, but five were acquitted after appealing to a high court in the Punjab province, which cited a lack of evidence.

Feudal and tribal laws are still
used  in rural Pakistan

The sixth man had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The other five have remained in detention despite the March ruling overturning their conviction.

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Mai had also called for the trial of eight men who served on the village council that ordered her to be raped. They have also been in detention for several months.

Justice

Mai sat quietly through the court proceedings but reacted with excitement as her supporters explained the court's decision.

"I'm very happy. God willing, justice will be done in future as well," she said as she hugged her supporters including members of non-governmental organisations.

Human rights workers had wanted Mai to go abroad to speak on the plight of women, but the government, saying it was acting in the interest of her security, recently banned her from overseas travel and seized her passport.

Ban lifted

Following protests from various quarters, including the US government, the ban was lifted. Mai said the government returned her passport on Sunday, although she said she had no immediate plans to travel abroad.

A US State Department spokesman said last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the matter of Mai's freedom to travel with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri.

President Pervez Musharraf, who has been trying to project Pakistan as a moderate and progressive Muslim nation, has taken a personal interest in Mai's case, saying it was tarnishing the country's image overseas.