To locals in the Russian village of Nikolskoye they were simply a group of eccentric Christian believers. And when 29 members of the sect abruptly vanished last week, villagers assumed they had packed up and gone on their way.
In fact, members of the religious doomsday cult had taken up residence in a remote cave. They had decided to barricade themselves inside until May next year -- the date when their spiritual leader had told them the world was going to end.
Yesterday authorities were attempting to talk to cult members by bellowing through a ventilation shaft cut into the cave's snowy roof. So far, however, the members -- who include 25 adults and four children, one of them a 16-month-old baby -- have refused to emerge.
"They have covered the entrance and refuse to come out and are threatening to blow themselves up. They threaten to detonate a gas tank," an official in the local prosecutor's office said.
The sect members are hiding out in a snow-covered hillside in the Penza region of central Russia. The chief prosecutor of the region's Bekovsky District, Alvetina Volchkova, said they moved in at the end of last month.
"I talked to them last Thursday," she said. "The temperature outside was freezing. They told me they were fine and that the temperature inside the cave is plus 17oC. They've lit candles and paraffin lamps. I asked if I could come in and have a look around but they wouldn't let me."
"They don't have a name as such. They don't regard themselves as a sect but refer to themselves as `the chosen ones.' They also say that they are representatives of the Russian Orthodox church," she said.
The police had sealed off the area and were trying to negotiate, she said.
"No one wants to take on the responsibility of provoking them ... because our information is that there are children among them," a police spokeswoman said.
The cave is a few kilometers from the tin-roofed prayer hall where sect members used to gather to sing songs. Elders began preparing the cave last month, bringing in supplies, locals said.
The cult leader is Pyotr Kuznetsov, a divorced 43-year-old architect from Belarus. Kuznetsov traveled across Belarus and Russia, spreading his message of apocalyptic doom before settling in the village 18 months ago, locals said.
The cave was found after the daughter of one a cult member contacted local authorities, Russian media said. Police arrested Kuznetsov, who led investigators to the entrance.
"Kuznetsov is their spiritual leader. He told them that the world would end in May and that the only way for them to save themselves was to go underground," Pavel Shishkin, a reporter with Komsomolskaya Pravda in Penza, said.
The Izvestiya newspaper yesterday reported that Kuznetsov had schizophrenia and that in the past few months he had been sleeping in a coffin. Relatives of cult members are expected to arrive to try to persuade their loved ones to give up. This may be tricky: cult members have apparently taken a vow of silence.
Asked whether special forces would storm the cave, Volchkova said: "The police are making sure that the situation is OK."