Cult member held for kidnapping

AFP/August 6, 2007

Denis De La Reunion - Police on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion have arrested a suspected cult member accused of kidnapping a 12-year-old boy.

Twelve-year-old Alexandre was seized at his home in the capital Saint Denis on Friday by four suspected members of a local Catholic cult, whose guru Juliano Verbard claims to receive regular visitations from the Virgin Mary.

Verbard, 25, has been on the run from justice since 2006, when he was convicted of raping a 13-year-old boy.

One of the suspected kidnap gang was detained on Saturday at the home of a cult follower. Three other people were held for questioning, including a woman who rented the car used by the kidnappers.

Police said the suspect admitted his role in the abduction and directed them to the spot where the boy was being held, but that the place was empty by the time police arrived.

Road blocks have been set up across the island to try to recover the boy and steps taken to ensure he cannot leave the country.

According to Alexandre's mother - who is related to a member of the cult - four masked men broke into her home on Friday, bound and gagged her and bundled her son into a waiting car.

She says Alexandre was taken from his home once before, on July 9, by cult members who took him to a nighttime mass, returning him the following morning.

Verbard created the cult, "The Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary", in 2001 after seeing an "apparition" of the Virgin Mary. He is thought to have around 40 followers.

Sued by cult members who accused him of molesting their teenaged children, Verbard jumped bail ahead of his conviction last year to 15 years in jail, and has been a fugitive ever since.

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