Russia doomsday cult prays for sign to leave bunker

NIKOLSKOE, Russia Tue Apr 1, 2008 12:07pm EDT

1 of 3. A rescue worker stands at the entrance to an underground hideout where some members of a doomsday cult emerged after a six months stay outside the settlement of Nikolskoye in the Penza region April 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Sinyakov

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NIKOLSKOE, Russia (Reuters) - Fourteen members of a Russian doomsday cult on Tuesday abandoned the remote underground bunker where they had been hiding for nearly half a year awaiting the end of the world.

The local chief negotiator said 14 cult members who remained underground would spend the night in the bunker praying for a sign from God that it was time for them to come out.

"They understand this is a chance the Lord is giving them," said Oleg Melnichenko, deputy governor of the Penza region where cult members have been holed up since October.

"They will pray all night in the hopes that a sign comes to them to leave their bunker," he told reporters as the light faded after a day of negotiations with members of the cult.

The group that came out of the bunker early on Tuesday included two girls aged 8 and 12. The negotiator said they decided to leave after a section of their dugout collapsed, the latest in a series of cave-ins.

"All are in good health, considering they have spent half a year underground," said Melnichenko.

"They have refused medical attention and are now in a house, praying, where they say they will stay until Orthodox Easter (on April 27) ... They said that God had given them a signal to leave."

The sect is an ultra-devout splinter group of the Russian Orthodox church. They reject processed food and say bar codes on products are the work of Satan.

They sealed themselves off on October 27 in an earthen bunker dug into a gulley near the village of Nikolskoe, 750 kilometers (450 miles) south east of Moscow.

Cult members had refused to come out of their bunker before the apocalypse, which their leader Pavel Kuznetsov -- now undergoing psychiatric treatment -- predicted would happen in April or May this year.

They had threatened to blow up gas canisters in their bunker if police tried to bring them out by force.

A Reuters reporter who crawled down into a now abandoned section of the bunker found a makeshift kitchen and a sleeping space hollowed out of the earth. Among the belongings left behind were a chess set and pages from a children's book.

Someone had carved large images of flowers and plants on the walls and cardboard covered the floor.

Seven female cult members left the dugout at the weekend after meltwater caused part of the earth structure to collapse.

All the cult members who have emerged from the bunker were being kept in cottages in a nearby village. They brought with them supplies from the dugout, including jars of pickled mushrooms. Police were stopping reporters from speaking to them.

Officials had for weeks been trying to persuade members to come out, negotiating through a ventilation shaft. They brought self-declared prophet Kuznetsov, and an Orthodox priest, to help with negotiations.

Kuznetsov did not join his followers in the bunker, saying God had different tasks for him.

(Writing by James Kilner and Christian Lowe; Editing by Mary Gabriel)

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