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48 die in cult suicide pact

AT LEAST 48 members of a religious sect died yesterday in what is believed to have been a mass suicide pact in two Swiss villages.

The ruins of a burnt-out chalet had not been properly searched last night, suggesting that the death toll could rise. An audio cassette which might help to explain the deaths had still to be analysed.

The 48 victims discovered so far - all of Canadian, Swiss or French nationality - were found after fires erupted shortly after midnight in the village of Cheiry, near Berne in the canton of Fribourg, and 50 miles away in Granges-sur-Salvan, in Valois, near the Italian border. The roof of one chalet in Granges collapsed. A magistrate in Cheiry said police wanted to interview two people about the deaths.

Firemen called to the Ferme de la Rochette, above Cheiry, found the farm's Swiss owner, Alberto Giacobino, dead with a bullet wound to his head and a binliner tied round his neck. A cassette was taped to his bedroom door.

The firemen then followed a trail of blood to a concealed door leading into a corridor stained with blood and littered with champagne bottles. Off the corridor was a room in which 19 bodies were laid in a circle, their heads pointing outwards. Some were dressed in red and black capes; most had bags over their heads and several had been shot. A 10- year-old child was among the dead. Three more bodies were found elsewhere on the farm. One room contained an altar.

The other 25 dead were in two of the three chalets which caught fire in Granges. Of the Cheiry deaths, Pierre Nidegger, the Fribourg police chief, said: 'It appears to be a collective suicide carried out by a sect. They probably died on Tuesday afternoon.'

The sect was led by Luc Jouret, 46, a Brussels-trained homeopathic doctor, and had various names such as 'The Cross and the Rose', 'The Temple of the Sun' or 'The Temples of the Golden Sun'.

Jean-Francois Mayer, a Swiss specialist on sects, said Mr Jouret had founded the 'Arcadia clubs' in the 1980s. These disbanded in 1990 and some of their members joined Mr Jouret's sect, he said.

Inhabitants of Cheiry, who called the sect members the 'seed-eaters' because they cultivated macrobiotic food, said that although they were secretive, they had not caused any particular worry in the village.

However, police said their suspicions had been aroused by a steady flow of cars, mostly rented at Geneva airport, arriving at the farm recently. It had been kept under surveillance in the belief that the movements might be connected to the drugs trade, and there had been reports that sect members had been trying to buy firearms.

The sect appeared to be under no particular pressure. In previous collective suicides - such as that of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 and in Waco, Texas, last year - there was a threat from the authorities.

A restaurant owner interviewed by Swiss radio said a group of the Cheiry sect members ate what may have been their last meal at his restaurant on Monday. They were morose and stopped talking when staff approached.

Police said the fires were set off by fuses connected to electrical timers which ignited cans of petrol. A similar fire destroyed a luxurious flat owned by Mr Jouret in Quebec two days earlier, killing two people. Mr Jouret left Canada last year after being questioned about illegal possession of a firearm. He has not been back.

Mr Jouret preached the 'interpenetration' of different forms of life and said man had only 10 years in which to repair his neglect of the environment and save the world. Last year the sect was linked to several employees of Hydro-Quebec, a large Quebec electrical power utility.

Canadian police have not yet identified the badly charred bodies of a man and a woman who both wore medallions with the initials T and S. However, they were found in the part of the building registered in the names of two of Mr Jouret's associates.

The Doomsday sect, page 11

(Photographs omitted)