`Interplanetary hitchhikers' drop out of sight in jungles of Columbia

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The Independent Online
UP TO 60 members of a Colombian doomsday cult went missing in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern Colombia at the weekend, after heading off for an alleged rendezvous with a spaceship.

The members of the Stella Maris Gnostic church were hoping to be carried off by extraterrestrials before what they believe will be the end of the world at the turn of the millennium.

The group's unexplained disappearance has triggered wild rumours, including ritual mass suicide on the mountaintop, a collective abduction by Marxist guerrillas, and successful extraterrestrial hitch-hiking. So far, no scenario has been completely ruled out.

But days before the disappearance, authorities in Cartagena, the nearest major city to the mountains, were approached with complaints about the Gnostic cult.

Enrique Aguilar, the head waiter at one of Cartagena's smartest hotels, tried to file an injunction stopping his wife Alix from selling off the family property to fund her pilgrimage with the church.

Alix, 33, cashed up what she could before taking the couple's three school-age daughters and proceeding to the Sierra Nevada with the rest of the congregation.

"She was convinced that cosmic beings were coming to save a chosen few from some big catastrophe," Mr Aguilar told the local press. "I couldn't stop her."

Enrique Diaz also could not talk his brother out of the plan to rendezvous with spiritual space-creatures. Lucas Diaz, a 39-year-old mechanic, headed out in a convoy to the jungle-clad peaks where, he told his brother, a vehicle from outer space would land and rescue the cult. He was accompanied by his wife and daughters, aged two and three.

Mariela Tovar accuses the sect of kidnapping her 23-year-old daughter, Patricia, for close encounters with these extra-terrestrials, and has filed numerous complaints.

Cartagena police searched the cult's place of worship, the Stella Maris temple, for clues to the congregation's whereabouts but found little.

It is an upreposessing place. Bare, plaster-covered pews are lined up on the first floor, while the ground floor of the unfinished building is occupied by a priest.

Danny Perez, the son of one of the most influential members of the secret sect, seemed remarkably calm when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday: "There is nothing to fear. They all went to participate in a spiritual communion out there. What's more it is not the first time they've done it. This talk of collective suicide... it's just bunk," he said.

He blames the fuss on his brother's mother-in-law, who denounced the group to authorities.

"My father has been a Gnostic for around ten years," he said, "but this church has been functioning for less than a year. They are all in a spiritual retreat, not in any kidnap."

The Colombian Gnostics interpret traditional scripture, especially the Book of Revelations, with an odd 1990s spin. They believe that beings from a different planet will pluck some 140,000 faithful from the world's population to survive the chaos about to be unleashed at the end of the millenium.

The steep, jungle-covered slopes of the Sierra Nevada are particularly unsuited to any landing strips. Some peaks soar to 15,000 feet, and pragmatists fear that the Gnostics, who hurried here from the steamy coastal city of Cartagena, may simply have become disoriented and, unprepared for the night drops in temperature, succumbed to exposure.

It was in these wild mountains that, in 1975, graverobbers rediscovered the Ciudad Perdida - the Lost City - an overgrown metropolis built by Tayrona Indians in the 11th century and abandoned to time.

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Aum Shinri Kyo

Believed to have been started in 1987, this cult was led by Shoko Asahara, and combines elements of Buddhism and Christianity. Group best known for the 1995 Sarin nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway in which 16 people were killed and 5,000 injured. One of the cult members was sentenced to death for the atrocity.

Branch Davidians

Including leader David Koresh, most perished in March 1993 after a 51- day siege at Waco, Texas. Eighty members, including 21 children, committed suicide, were murdered or shot by FBI. The group, also known as Students of the Seven Seals, believes in the imminent return of Christ and that the lamb in Revelation 5:2 is not Christ but Koresh.

The Family

This group was created by Charles Manson, referred to as God and Satan by his followers in California. Manson believed he would lead the remaining black population after a massive race war. In 1969, he told his followers to murder high-profile people, including Sharon Tate Polanski and her house guests. Manson is still serving life.

Heaven's Gate

Thirty-nine members of this Californian-based cult committed suicide in March 1997, believing a spaceship was going to take them to "paradise". The cult was founded by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie "Ti" Lu Trusdale Nettles. The group's beliefs combined elements of Christianity with beliefs about UFOs, interpreting Gospel passages as references to a visit from aliens.

Solar Temple

This was started by Luc Jouret, who convinced his followers he was a member of the 14th-century Christian Order of the Knights Templar during a previous life. Mixing Christianity with New Age beliefs, he said that after death he would lead them near the star Sirius. In 1994, believing they had to die by fire, 53 of them perished in mass-suicide blazes in Switzerland, Canada and France.

The People's Temple

This was founded in 1957 by Jim Jones, a former Methodist preacher who turned from philanthropy to become a dictator. He established an agricultural community in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1976. Two years later, 638 of his adult followers and 276 children died after drinking cyanide-laced Kool-aid or being shot by his security guards as "an act of revolutionary suicide".