Child freed, cult members arrested

Saint Denis De La Reunion - A 12-YEAR-OLD boy was released overnight on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion as police arrested a suspected cult guru and his followers over the abduction.

Alexandre Thelahire was released safe and sound and was not physically abused, deputy prosecutor Dominique Audureau, said on local radio.

Police had surrounded the house where the boy was held in Tampon on the south of the island.

The boy had been seized on Saturday from his home in the capital, Saint Denis, by four suspected members of a local Catholic cult whose guru, Juliano Verbard, claims to receive regular visitations from the Virgin Mary.

The 25-year-old guru and nine of his suspected lieutenants as well as about 10 followers were also arrested, police said.

French interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie today praised "all the law enforcement services on the island of Reunion who were able to quickly recover young Alexander" as well as "arrest Juliano Verbard".

Verbard had been on the run from justice since 2006, when he was convicted of raping a 13-year-old boy.

Mr Audureau said Verbard was the "most wanted man in Reunion and the mastermind of the cult", adding that he hoped "we have put a definitive stop to this cult".

Earlier police said one of the suspected kidnap gang members was detained on Sunday at the home of a cult follower. The suspect admitted his role in the abduction and directed police to a spot where the boy had been held, but that place was empty by the time police arrived.

Road blocks were set up across the island to try to recover the boy and steps taken to ensure he could not be smuggled out of the country.

Alexandre's mother, Catherine, who is related to a member of the cult, said four masked men broke into her home on Saturday, bound and gagged her and bundled her son into a waiting car.

She said cult members believe Alexandre is destined to take over from Verbard as their guru, and they took him from his home once before, on July 9, leading him to a nighttime mass before returning him the following morning.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, on vacation in the US, telephoned Alexandre's mother to express his satisfaction at the happy outcome of the ordeal, the French presidency said.

Verbard created the cult, The Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, in 2001 after saying he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. He is thought to have about 40 followers.

Sued by cult members who accused him of molesting their teenaged children, Verbard jumped bail ahead of his conviction last year to 15 years in jail.

The government minister for France's overseas territories, Christian Estrosi, ordered stronger efforts Monday against cult activity in France. As of the 1990s, some 150,000 people in France belonged to cults, according to a parliamentary report.