Cult victims were murdered, police say

A SENIOR police officer investigating the mysterious deaths of 48 members of a sect in two Swiss villages said yesterday that he was treating the affair as a mass murder, rather than collective suicide.

Major Bernard Geiger, chief of police in the Valais canton, said the deaths in the village of Granges-sur-Salvan of 25 people, some of them children, could not be treated as suicide. Unless the body of Luc Jouret, 46, the sect leader, was identified among the remains, a Swiss judge would soon issue an international arrest warrant for him. Police have said they are looking for two people in connection with the case, but have not identified them.

Meanwhile, in a house in Morin Heights, Quebec, where earlier this week police found the remains of a couple linked to the deaths in Switzerland, two more bodies were found, burnt beyond recognition.

Jean-Francois Mayer, a Swiss experts on sects, said he received a letter yesterday 'from beyond the grave', claiming that the 48 members of the Order of the Sun Temple wanted to die because they had been persecuted in Quebec. The letter, unsigned and typed on a word processor, said the persecution had become 'unbearable'. It said the sect members would continue their work 'at other times and in other places'. The Geneva postmark on the envelope was smudged and the date of dispatch was illegible, according to a Swiss reporter who saw it.

The bodies in Granges were discovered early on Wednesday after firemen were called to three chalets occupied by the sect which had been set alight. At the same time, a further 23 bodies were found in a burnt-out farm in Cheiry, 50 miles away. The deaths, of Canadian, French and Swiss nationals, resembled those of the four in the house in Morin Heights owned by Mr Jouret, where a fire was also set off by a timing mechanism.

On Wednesday, Pierre Nidegger, Major Geiger's counterpart investigating the Cheiry deaths, said the case was one of mass suicide. Major Geiger said yesterday: 'My colleagues and I think this was a hasty conclusion. We do not exclude that a good number of the victims were murdered.' At a press conference, he used the term 'mass execution'.

Andrei Piller, an examining magistrate, said autopsies on some of the Cheiry victims showed they had been given a powerful drug by injection or intravenous drip before they died. A police officer said the attitudes of the bodies - one couple were lying side by side and holding hands, while a little girl was pressed against a little boy and 'almost smiling' - proved they had not been asphyxiated. 'Suffocation is very violent,' he said.

Police completed their search of the third chalet yesterday, but found no more bodies. Their attention turned to Geneva, where the sect has a third 'lodge'. Several people were taken into custody for questioning and their homes searched.