Deathly spell of doom messiahs

Today's bizarre tragedy is one in a long line of mass suicide cults involving affluent, educated people who fall under the spell of messianic leaders.

The Rev Jim Jones takes the credit for the highest body count when he gave cyanide-spiked grape punch to more than 900 disciples of his People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978.

Last Saturday, five members of the Order of the Solar Temple, which has claimed 74 lives in the past three years, died in St Casimir, Quebec. The cult, whose devotees believe suicide takes them to a new life on a planet named Sirius, claimed 16 lives in December 1995. The bodies, which had been set alight with white spirit, were found arranged in a star shape near a remote Alpine village and included three children.

The movement was founded in Geneva in the late 1970s by Joseph di Mambro, a fraudster with convictions in France and Luc Jouret, a Belgian homoeopathic doctor. Both died in the suicide of 53 in Switzerland and Canada in 1994.

The cult attracted a senior civil servant in the Quebec Ministry of Finance, the mayor of the Canadian town of Richelieu and a leading journalist on the Journal of Quebec.

In March 1995, the Aum Shinri Kyo cult's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway caused 12 deaths and poisoned 5,500 more commuters. Their leader, Shoko Asahara, is now on trial.

In April 1993, after a 51-day siege, FBI agents stormed David Koresh's Kingdom of Heaven in Waco, Texas. Eighty-three members of the Branch Davidians died after they set their compound on fire.

Near Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, 33 members of a cult which idolised a 48-year-old woman, Park Soon Ja, killed themselves in a mass sacrifice.