Police halt suicide cult's last supper

Police in the Canary Islands last night arrested a German psychologist and cult leader charged with planning the collective suicide of 32 followers, including five children aged from six to 12.

Members of the religious sect apparently planned to end their lives yesterday in the expectation that a spaceship would carry them away from the summit of Mt Teide, a volcano in Tenerife.

Heide Fittkau-Garthe, 56, from Berlin, had lived on the island for a decade and police had been investigating her followers, who were all Germans except one Spanish woman, for several months. The sect believed that the world was to end last night and that they would be transported to a new world.

Police picked up clothing, illustrations and documents from the followers, said to be middle-class men and women, including university graduates, aged between 20 and 60.

A government spokesman said the sect centred around the personality of their leader, who homed in on her followers personality weaknesses and induced them to pay up to pounds 300 to participate in meetings. Some members had apparently arrived in Tenerife in recent weeks after bidding farewell to their families "until the next world".

Police believe the sect is a splinter group of the Solar Temple suicide cult, whose followers have carried out mass suicides in Canada, France and Switzerland. Dr Fittkau-Garthe's disciples were staging a "last supper" at a private residence in the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife before police intervened.

"Inducement to suicide is a crime, and for that reason the security forces had to avoid this evil thing," Antonio Lopez Ojeda, a Canaries government official, said yesterday. "It is not even clear which branch the sect is, whether it is the so-called Solar Temple cult or whether it is a splinter of this group ... many types are possible, based on the personality of the leader."

If convicted, Dr Fittkau-Garthe faces four to eight years in prison. In 1994, 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple died in murder-suicides in Switzerland. Five more members died the same year in Canada, followed by 16 others in the French Alps in 1995 and five more in Canada last March. Thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide last March at a mansion outside San Diego.