French police fear collective suicide by sect members

NANTES, France (Reuters) - A tiny sect convinced the world will end next month is under close police surveillance amid fears its members may commit collective suicide, officials in the western French city of Nantes said on Tuesday.

The apocalyptic New Lighthouse sect -- six members waiting to be swept off by spacemen to Venus before the world ends on October 24 -- has been under observation since a member killed himself and two others attempted suicide in July, they said.

A local pro-family association demanded a ban on the group, holed up in a two-storey house, but police said they had no grounds to outlaw it.

"We have held an inquiry and it did not implicate the sect in any wrongdoing," an official in the prosecutor's office said. "So we have not taken any legal steps against it."

The mother of sect leader Arnaud M., 36, who expects to become a new Christ on Venus and has appointed his twin brother pope in the new life they expect there, made a desperate appeal to them on French television on Monday.

"I ask them to stop all this," said the mother, who was not identified. "These things have gone too far. They could endanger other people's lives."

Sect members have been seen entering and leaving the house, where all the shutters have been kept closed, and buying large quantities of food. They refuse to talk to neighbours or the growing crowd of waiting journalists.

Police said they were alerted to the sect this year when neighbours noted strange behaviour on a farm commune of 21 people preparing for extraterrestrial beings to come and fetch them before the end of the world, which they expected on July 11.

"At their meetings, they wore capes and held spiritual seances," one officer said.

New Lighthouse lost some followers when July 12 arrived safely. But two days later, one member threw himself under a car and died. Two others leaped from a window at a nearby castle. They survived, but their acts prompted police to suspect the rest of the sect could try collective suicide next month, an officer said.

"They have gone so far in their delirium that they might not be able to get their feet back on the ground," Marie-Claire Moisel, a police official in charge of observing sects, told the daily France-Soir.

Officials say dozens of small sects exist in France. Some 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple cult committed mass suicide in 1994 and a further 16 did the same the following year to start what they called "death voyages" to the star Sirius.