20 Nov 2007

Cult leader seeks to free children, official says

CNN International

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A doomsday cult leader whose followers are barricaded inside a cave in southern Russia will be taken to the site in an attempt to secure the release of several children, according to a government official.

The 29 cult members -- including four children as young as 18 months -- retreated last month to the hideout in the Penza region, about 640 kilometers (400 miles) southeast of Moscow, threatening to blow themselves up if the authorities tried to intervene.

Self-declared prophet Pyotr Kuznetsov, who was not with his followers, is now in a psychiatric hospital but will be taken to the site Wednesday to seek the release of the children, Yevgeny Guseynov, a regional government official, told The Associated Press.

Russian Orthodox monks and priests have already tried to contact the cult members who are reported to be mostly women, but members refused to speak to them, AP reported. The 29 members of the cult, which calls itself the "True Russian Orthodox Church," say they will ignite gasoline canisters if authorities try to force them out, Guseynov told CNN.

He said officials would also try to find experienced negotiators. "There is no talk whatsoever of any sort of storming" the site, he said.

The cult excavated the cave system themselves after Kuznetsov told his followers to hide themselves away to await the end of the world, which he predicted will take place next May, according to Russian media reports.

Although the cult members have been exchanging letters with Kuznetsov, they are mistrustful of his intervention because they believe he is acting under the influence of the Russian government, Guseynov said.

"They still respect him, they listen to him but they don't trust him as they believe he is acting under pressure from the authorities", Guseynov said.

Kuznetsov was charged Thursday with setting up a religious organization associated with violence. "I've met the man, and he's definitely mentally sick, big time," Guseynov told CNN.

A trained engineer, Kuznetsov did not let his followers watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, according to Russian media reports.

Temperatures in the cave are below 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The cult members have gathered enough food supplies to last until spring, according to the agency.

A 24-hour operation has been established in the nearby village of Nikolskoye incorporating teams of local police, officers from the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations and medical staff.

Guseinov said negotiators are trying to persuade the cult members to accept food, medicine and hot water to bathe the children.

CNN's Maxim Tkachenko contributed to this report.


No comments:

Post a Comment