SAINT-DENIS DE LA REUNION, La Reunion – Sixteen members of a religious cult — including a leading fugitive — were in custody on an Indian Ocean island Monday after French commandos stormed their compound and rescued a boy they allegedly kidnapped.
Among those arrested was the believed head of the group, Julien Verbard, a 25-year-old who was convicted in absentia of raping two boys but had evaded police on the French island of La Reunion for three years.
Police say the cult considered 12-year-old Alexandre Thelahine a "new messiah" and abductors seized him from his parents' residence in Saint-Denis de la Reunion on Friday. They escaped by car before abandoning it and switching to another vehicle.
The child was kept in a house rented by the cult, called Mary's Painful and Immaculate Heart, in the southern part of La Reunion, a popular vacation destination for tourists from the French mainland.
On Sunday, agents from the elite GIGN police force stormed the compound near the Piton-de-la-Fournaise volcano. Four hours later, police said they had rescued the boy and arrested the cult members "without incident."
Prosecutor Dominique Audureau lamented that it had taken too long to catch Verbard. Police detective Francois Perrault said he enjoyed the support of "an almost paramilitary-like organization."
"All the members of the sect protected him all the time, traveling only by night and using three vehicles to be sure nobody would follow them," he added.
Verbard faces potential charges of child abduction by an organized crime group.
The boy had been kidnapped once before, on July 9, and was found the next day. A believed member of the sect was arrested in that case.
"He is doing fine," his mother, Catherine, said Monday. She added that he had not been abused physically or sexually, but understood "those people wanted to harm him."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on vacation in New Hampshire, spoke by telephone with the boy's mother to express his support.
The government minister for France's overseas territories, Christian Estrosi, ordered stronger efforts Monday against cult activity in France. As of the 1990s, some 150,000 people in France belonged to cults, according to a parliamentary report.