Siege as French apocalypse cult plans voyage to Venus

GENDARMES have surrounded members of a French sect in the western town of Nantes over fears the group may commit mass suicide next month when they believe the end of the world is nigh.

The members of the Neo-Phare sect, including a doctor, a teacher and a tax inspector, follow the teachings of self-proclaimed guru Arnaud Mussy who predicts that Nantes will be consumed by the apocalypse on 24 October.

Mr Mussy has predicted the end of the world on two other occasions this year, once in February and once in July. Having twice got his dates wrong, the guru has settled on 24 October as the definitive day when all life will cease and the earth will be invaded by flying saucers carrying "beings of light".

Investigators, who are keeping the sect under close surveillance, say they fear that "the last voyage to Venus" for which the sect members are reported to be preparing next month is a code for a mass suicide reminiscent of the deaths of 16 members of the Order of the Solar Temple cult, whose charred bodies were found, laid out in a star pattern, in 1995 in an Alpine forest.

Investigators believe two cult members drugged and shot dead the 14 others before setting themselves and the bodies on fire in a forest clearing known as the Well of Hell.

Neo-Phare was created in 1997 by the 36-year-old Mr Mussy, about whom little is known except that he is a former hitchhiker and keen numerologist with a taste for the esoteric. He took control of a banal association called Phare-Ouest and transformed it into his sect, preaching the coming of the apocalypse when only "the apostles of the new world, born out of the final cataclysm, will be spared".

Investigators say that a key feature of the sect’s operations is the creation of a "Divine Family". This entailed the separation of couples judged by Mr Mussy to be "badly matched". New couples were then created under the guru’s guidance.

The sect first came to the attention of authorities in February 2000, when gendarmes in the Maine department noted the presence of some 20-odd people who shared beliefs in the end of the world, the existence of extra-terrestrials and an after-life. Membership is reported to have peaked last year at 63 people according to investigators.

Authorities first became seriously alarmed when members shut themselves up inside a house in a small village in the Loire vineyards. "When we realised that they had been shut up inside for a long time without giving any sign of life, we began to worry, said a local gendarme. It was the first time we had contemplated the possibility of a mass suicide."

Police surveillance annoyed Mr Mussy so much that earlier this year he moved members of his sect to Cellier, another small village on the banks of the River Loire. It was there in July that one member committed suicide by throwing himself under a car and another attempted to kill himself by jumping from the window of a château. He survived the fall. A third sect member was later talked out of the same jump by a passerby.

Mr Mussy moved his sect to a house in Nantes two months ago. "Some believers claim the guru went into a trance and God spoke to him, ordering him to recompose the couples who belong to the sect," an investigator told Le Parisien yesterday.

"Which is what he did. Some could not bear having to leave their spouse for someone else and they decided to commit suicide. Other members say that the most fervent believe so strongly the end of the world is imminent that they want to die immediately."