A couple who gave the controversial Raelian cult almost $1 million to clone their dead son have told of their distress at being cynically duped.
American lawyer Mark Hunt and his wife Tracy, hoped scientists from the bizarre sect would create an identical twin of their son Andrew, who died aged 10 months after heart surgery. But they have now accused French biochemist Brigitte Boisselier - who announced on Friday that the Raelian movement had produced the world's first human clone - of cashing in on their grief. She was at the centre of a criminal inquiry in the US last year.
The Hunts' treatment will cast new doubt on the cult's claim that one of its followers gave birth to a clone named Eve.
The baby was born to a 31-year-old woman, possibly Korean, in an undisclosed country. Some reports suggest it happened in eastern Europe but there were also indications it may have been in the Middle East.
Last night the cult would not indicate where the birth took place or where three other women allegedly pregnant with clones were based, although a South Korean newspaper claimed a 20-year-old Korean woman is expecting one early next year.
However, in the face of worldwide moral condemnation and intense scepticism from genetics experts, the cult - which believes mankind was created by aliens - insists it can authenticate its claims.
The evidence will be supplied over the next few days, said Raelian spokesman Glen Carter.
"An independent expert will take DNA samples within days and the results will be published soon afterwards," he said.
Even without proof, the Vatican said the announcement was in itself a sign of a brutal mentality, devoid of ethical or human consideration.
The Hunts, from Charleston, West Virginia, were devastated when Andrew died in 1999. But they kept some of his cells in cold storage.
"We decided, for the first time in human history, to transcend the great gulf of death and create an identical twin of Andrew," said 42-year-old Mr Hunt.
The couple visited scientists to learn about genetic engineering before realising that the only group prepared to attempt a human clone from the cells of a dead person was Clonaid, a firm founded by the Raelian sect.
They were also aware that Dr Boisselier, a director, was a member of a crazy UFO cult; but evidently brushed aside any concerns they may have harboured.
She was willing to work on research involving the cells of dead people and was interested in proving that human cloning was possible, said Mr Hunt. "We didn't really care what her religion was - that was her business."
But he accused Dr Boisselier of being more interested in publicising the bizarre cult than in helping him and his wife. "They weren't doing anything, they weren't working," said Mr Hunt, a former Congressional candidate.
He paid Dr Boisselier almost $9000 a month, leased a secret laboratory and bought equipment for the project, but it never seriously got off the ground. "We were deceived in a most cynical way. I don't believe they ever intended helping us," his wife told a friend.
The couple privately believe Dr Boisselier and her team may not have even had the technology or knowledge to achieve their aims. The money was used to install a laboratory in an old school in the town of Nitro, near Charleston, and scientists sought to determine the viability of the dead child's DNA.
"We wanted to see if the cells looked good for DNA replicating," said Mr Hunt. "Then we started to do some basic science involving cow eggs we got from slaughterhouses."
The couple said a student from Alabama University seemed to do most of the work.
To Mr Hunt's annoyance Dr Boisselier, while pocketing his money, was spending more time on interviews about herself and her religion than moving the project forward.
"We decided not to renew the contract," said Mr Hunt. Shortly afterwards, Food and Drug Administration officials learned of the laboratory and Mr Hunt was forced to promise that no human cloning would take place.
Dr Boisselier admitted last year that a criminal inquiry - launched after the Nitro lab raid - had forced her company to move to an unidentified foreign country.
She was investigated by a grand jury in New York.
She said federal officials finally asked her to sign an agreement stating she would not attempt to clone a human in the US until the law on such procedures was clarified.
"Its a pity that cloning may not happen here because this is the most advanced country for science," Dr Boisselier said at the time.
Mr Hunt has told friends he feels embarrassed by the episode and believes Dr Boisselier had no real intention of attempting the cloning.
The Hunts are now looking for a scientist to help them, even though they have had another baby.
While most genetics experts doubt the claim by Dr Boisselier, others disagree. Dr Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, a company which has produced clones of human embryos for research purposes, said: The science already exists to clone a human embryo and it may be easier than we thought.
Mr Carter, of the UK Raelian movement, was asked yesterday why the sect had not yet fully disclosed the evidence.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today program: "I don't think the security of the parents, of the mother carrying the child, would have been guaranteed if people outside the Clonaid company had been aware of the circumstances."