Police swooped on a Brazilian doomsday cult just 10 minutes before more than 100 followers were about to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned soup
Elite troops burst into a building where self-proclaimed prophet Luis Pereira dos Santos had barricaded himself in after predicting the world would end at 8pm yesterday.
There was believed to be an exchange of gunfire between the group and police who used gas bombs and pepper spray during the assault. No casualties have been reported.
Santos was arrested as officers took away a tub containing a sweet paste made from Caju fruit which they suspected contained a toxic product.
The night before 19 children were rescued from the building on the outskirts of Teresina, the capital of the country's northeastern state of Piaui.
Police forced their way in after receiving 'credible' information of a suicide pact.
The stand-off began at 3pm local time - an hour before the predicted apocalypse - when 60 military and police officers surrounded the house.
One of the followers, Maria Silva, 57, came out to tell the crowd that 'Jesus Christ is in the body of the prophet' and that no-one would be allowed in or out the residence.
Desperate relatives of those inside tried to invade the building to take their loved ones out. Maria Madalena, 39, told Brazil's Cidade Verde website: 'We want to get my mother out while there is still time. This man has messed up her head, it's like she's been brainwashed.'
Authorities kept a close watch on the children placed in care homes over fears they had been instructed to take their own lives at the same time.
During the operation, a 'significant quantity' of rat poison was found at the residence, a police spokesman said.
After the raid, military police commander Alberto Meneses said: 'This was an unusual situation, because when religion is involved everything is possible and nothing is predictable.'
Santos, known to his flock as Daddy Luis, had claimed an angel visited four years ago telling him the exact time the world was going to end.
Last month, the 43-year-old spiritual leader instructed his 113 followers to leave their jobs, give away all their possessions and take their children out of school, police confirmed.
The end of the world was predicted on a public holiday in Brazil, the feast day of the country's patron saint Our Lady of Aparecida, as well as national Children's Day.
Although the group didn't put up any resistance, one of the cult members, Maria Francisca Alves, 38, whose 12-year-old daughter was taken away by police, protested the action.
Asked why she had taken her daughter out of school, she said: 'We're preparing for the end of the world, so what's the point of studying? Learning the word of God is more important.'
Children's judge Maria Luiza de Moura, who issued the protection order, said: 'We believe that a mass suicide or murder may happen using a soup ingested by cult members.
'The adults are free to act of their free and spontaneous will, but we have to make sure that nothing happens to the children.'
The police chief leading the investigation, Joatan Goncalves, said: 'Our worry is if there are offered a toxic product claiming to offer salvation on Friday.'
In an interview with Brazil's Terra website, divorced father-of-five Santos, a former caretaker, said he didn't fear the police and denied that the group were planning to drink poison.
He said: 'I preach the gospel and it says thou shalt no kill. We will be saved and raptured in another way.'
The former Catholic said most of his followers are former street beggars, prostitutes, drug dealers and criminals which God had told him to 'save'.
He said: 'I received a message telling me to be a shepherd to lost sheep. I am Christ's advocate. From Friday night there will be only darkness, because the beast will come out of the abyss and the world will end.
'People call me crazy, even my wife abandoned me, but I am sure that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and the good people will be taken away.'
After Santos was arrested, police occupied the building where the rest of the cult members remain.
The largest recorded cult suicide was in 1978 when People's Temple leader Jim Jones inspired 918 of his followers to kill themselves in Guyana by drinking cyanide.
From 1994 to 1997, members of the Order of the Solar Temple sect began a series of mass suicides, which lead to around 74 deaths.
In 1997, 39 followers of the Heaven's Gate cult died in a mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, believing their souls would journey aboard a spaceship they believed to be following the Hale-Bopp comet.