A cult leader jailed for sex attacks on children has escaped in a helicopter from a prison on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion.
Juliano Verbard was serving a 15-year term for rapes and assaults on kids.
Two of his jailed followers were also hauled on board the aircraft that was hijacked by three accomplices, said senior official Jean-Frantois Moniotte.
"All our search procedures have been put into action to find them," said Moniotte, who is chief of staff to Reunion's prefect and police chief on the island.
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The helicopter landed on waste ground a few hundred yards away and the gang escaped in a van that had been waiting for them, he said.
The aircraft's two crew members were unhurt and are helping police.
"One of them put a gun to my temple while another threatened to set fire to a bottle of petrol he had in his hand with a cigarette lighter," the pilot told a local broadcaster.
Verbard was the guru of the self-styled Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary on Reunion. The cult has no connection to mainstream Catholic institutions.
He was jailed in February 2008 for attacks on two children, aged nine and 13, whose mother was the sect's treasurer.
He is also under investigation in two other cases — another alleged sex attack and the kidnap of a 12-year-old.
Verbard launched his cult in 2002 after convincing hundreds of followers that the Virgin Mary appeared to him every month.
Authorities attempted to dismantle the sect after it was implicated in the kidnap of a 12-year-old boy who Verbard claimed was destined to become his successor.