MOSCOW At least 30 members of a Russian doomsday cult have barricaded themselves in a remote cave to await the end of the world and are threatening to commit suicide if police intervene, officials and media said on Thursday.
"They have covered the entrance and refuse to come out and are threatening to blow themselves up," an official in the local prosecutor's office told Reuters by telephone. "They threaten to detonate a gas tank and blow themselves up."
The cult members, who include 29 adults and four children, are hidden inside a snow-covered hillside in the Penza region of central Russia. A Penza police spokeswoman said they had moved into the dug-out on November 7.
"No one wants to take on the responsibility of provoking them ... because our information is that there are children among them," said the official.
They are thought to have taken food and fuel supplies in with them and Russian television pictures from the scene showed smoke or steam coming out of a hole in the snow-covered ravine where it was built.
A police patrol was guarding the area to prevent anyone provoking them.
"They are simple Christians," a local priest, Father Georgy, told NTV television station. "They say: 'The church is doing a bad job, the end of the world is coming soon and we are all saving ourselves'."
Media reports said the cult members believed the world would end sometime in May next year. Police expected them to emerge when their supplies ran out.
After decades of state-enforced atheism under Soviet rule, many Russians and other ex-Soviet nationals have come under the influence of home-grown and foreign sects.
Many Russians have refused new passports and taxpayers' personal identification numbers, saying the figures contained "satanic" combinations of numbers.
Izvestia newspaper said the leader of the cult, Pyotr Kuznetsov, had been detained by police. It said he was a 43-year-old who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that in the last few months he had been sleeping in a coffin.
Police took Kuznetsov to the cave to persuade his followers to come out but without success, said the newspaper.
(Reporting by Tatyana Ustinova; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
Our top photos from the past week.