PNG villagers wash hands of 'Black Jesus'

Madang, Papua New Guinea - Villagers have captured a notorious Papua New Guinea cult leader known as "Black Jesus" and handed him to police for allegedly raping under-age "flower girls" who belong to the sect.

Steven Tari eluded police for more than a year by moving from village to village or hiding in remote mountain camps in the Transgogol area of Madang Province.

The failed bible student had gathered around six thousand followers as he travelled through mountain villages promising disciples gifts from heaven if they joined his congregation.

But villagers fed up with his cult activities captured him on Tuesday while he was resting in a vacant house in Matepi village, PNG newspapers reported yesterday.

Tari had thousands of followers including a core of armed warriors to protect him.

His cult included dozens of "flower girls", some as young as eight, who Tari allegedly exploited for sex.

Police said he would be charged with raping scores of women and under-age girls and escaping lawful custody. The 32-year-old was also being investigated over the alleged ritualistic killing of a 14-year-old girl last year. Tari was charged over his cult activities in June 2005, but absconded after being granted bail.

During his reign, he closed down village churches and schools and his followers torched scores of homes and crops. Pastor Paul Makura, of the Four Square Church in Matepi, told reporters a dozen village men entered the house where Tari was sleeping on Tuesday, and pounced on him and tied him up.

One villager then climbed a tree on a nearby mountain peak to pick up a mobile phone signal to call police. Tari had with him a knife, his "magic" rod and a tattered bible.

Six police officers trekked through the night to reach the village where a bamboo stretcher had been built to carry the trussed Tari out.

More than 2000 people gathered outside the Madang police station on Wednesday, jeering and swearing at Tari as he was taken to the cells.

Madang Provincial Police Commander Anthony Wagambie commended Matepi villagers for capturing Tari, saying he had brought shame to the district and to PNG.