MOSCOW – Fourteen followers of a self-declared prophet emerged Tuesday from a dank, muddy cave in Russia after melting snow damaged the hillside shelter where they had been waiting for the world to end, officials said.
Another 14 cult followers remained in the underground cavern, the last holdouts among the 35 who took refuge there five months ago, saying they believed the world would end in May. Two children, ages 8 and 14, were among those who came out of the cave.
Cult members told emergency officials that God had instructed them to leave, said Oleg Melnichenko, vice governor for the Penza region about 400 miles southeast of Moscow. He said melting snows caused part of the cave to collapse.
"There was a fourth cave-in and they considered this to be a sign from above, that God had opened the cave up for them and they decided to leave," Melnichenko said in televised comments.
The 14 who fled were moved into a so-called prayer house in the village of Nikolskoye where cult leader Pyotr Kuznetsov — who had had been in a psychiatric hospital — has been living while helping with negotiations, officials said.
The group will remain there until Russian Orthodox Easter, April 27, along with seven others who came out on Friday after another part of the shelter caved in, Melnichenko said.
TV footage showed women, dressed in long skirts and head scarves, being helped up a hillside by emergency workers and into a waiting bus.
Those remaining inside were cut off from the main section of the cave by the partial collapse, but negotiators were talking to them through stove and air pipes, officials said.
Inside the cave's catacombs, photographs showed different rooms, separated by small windows; and plastic bottles, glass jars, mattresses and a chess board strewn on muddy floors and carpeted floors. Orthodox crosses were on the walls and the ceilings, along with what appeared to be a child's painting.
Emergency workers also took nearly a dozen full fuel canisters from the cave. Inside a 52-gallon plastic barrel full of kerosene stood in one corner.
When they went into the cave in November, the cult followers had warned that they would detonate gas canisters and burn themselves to death if police tried to remove them by force.
Penza regional emergency spokesman Dmitry Yeskin said the group that emerged Tuesday also handed over three rifles.
Authorities repeatedly had enlisted the help of priests from the Orthodox Church in an effort to persuade the group to leave, communicating mainly through a small chimney pipe that poked up through the snowy hillside.
Kuznetsov has been charged with setting up a religious organization associated with violence. Officials have also said they seized literature that included what appeared to be extremist rhetoric.
An engineer from a devout family, Kuznetsov — who goes by the title Father Pyotr — declared himself a prophet several years ago. He left his family and established the True Russian Orthodox Church and recruited followers in Russia and Belarus.
He reportedly told followers that in the afterlife they would be judging whether others deserved heaven or hell.
Followers were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, Russian media reported.