Last Cult Members Leave Penza Cave

A handful of doomsday cult members on Friday crawled out of the damp cave in Penza region where they spent six months waiting for the end of the world, which their leader had prophesied.

The nine people were the last of a group of 35 men, women and children that had dug into a hillside near the city of Penza in November and threatened to blow themselves up with gas canisters if authorities tried to forcibly remove them. The last cave inhabitants left their Ural Mountains hideout after officials had found the bodies of two women who died in the cave.

"All of them have left. We ensured their safe exit," Mikhail Nosachev, head of the regional branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, said in televised remarks.

Police said they offered the hermits food after their exit but that they refused to take it. "We fried some potatoes for them and brought cucumbers from home, but they refused to eat," police spokesman Alexei Doppel said on NTV television. "They said their religious beliefs don't allow them to take food on Wednesdays and Fridays."

Authorities said cult members left the cave after being warned that they could be poisoned by fumes from the rotting corpses. "We could smell the stench through ventilation holes," said Vladimir Provotorov, a local official involved in the negotiations, RIA-Novosti reported. "As we pulled out the dead bodies, we suggested that the others leave. They agreed."

Cult members who left the cave earlier told local journalists that the women had died from cancer and exhaustion.

Emergency officials said they found the bodies by accident while trying to strengthen the supports of the cave.

The elaborate structure -- complete with sleeping rooms, a makeshift kitchen and religious altars -- suffered a series of partial cave-ins earlier this year, caused by melting snows.

Most cave inhabitants abandoned the sit-in in March and April on medical grounds or because they were just sick and tired of sleeping in the dirt that kept falling from above. The cult leader, Pyotr Kuznetsov, 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.

Kuznetsov 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.

Kuznetsov did not go into the cave. He lived with some of his followers in a nearby house and was hospitalized last month after he had beaten himself over the head repeatedly with a wooden stick in what officials said was a suicide attempt. He faces criminal charges of setting up a religious organization associated with violence.

Meanwhile, a sound engineer with NTV was beaten early Friday by two law enforcement officers who were guarding the entrance to the cave, the Life.ru portal reported. Yevgeny Gorin had been asleep in a tent near the cave when two men approached and asked him to leave, the web site said. Without waiting for an answer, they knocked him to the ground and began punching and kicking him, the site said. Video posted on the web site that was also aired on NTV's news broadcast showed one man holding the sound engineer to the ground and beating him, while another man watched. The journalist appeared to be guarding a TV camera under his body. Later footage showed him with a bloodied face. A police spokesman said on air that NTV would receive an explanation.