Children freed from Muslim sect's underground bunker
At least 15 children were freed by Russian authorities after having been held for years in an underground bunker by a Muslim sect in Kazan in eastern Tartarstan. Some 60 members of the group had lived for more than 10 years below a mosque.
AFP - Russian police have freed more than a dozen children held for years in underground isolation by a Muslim sect in Kazan, in the eastern republic of Tartarstan, the interior ministry said.
Some 60 members of a religious group, followers of a local spiritual leader, had lived for more than a decade in a bunker below a mosque in the city, the police said.
At least 15 children who were part of the group had been forced to live in squalid conditions with no access to the outside world.
The bunker was discovered in police searches of Islamic organisations in the city following twin attacks last month on moderate clerics by suspected Islamists.
Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov said in a statement that 19 children, most aged under six and including three babies, had been rehoused in shelters following the raid.
And the same statement quoted members of the sect as saying there may be as many as 27 children.
A police video of the raid shown to reporters showed bearded male residents shouting as investigators forced their way inside the two-storey building. Women wearing headscarves were shown carrying young children, including babies, up a long flight of stairs from underground.
"Take these children to a bus," a helmeted police officer can be heard shouting.
Police investigator Ranis Bakhitov said the children were "living in unsanitary conditions. There is a lack of ventilation. The premises are like monks' cells."
"Based on the evidence of police officers, all the children require medical attention."
"During the search we found that the building was two-storey. Below it was a cellar where we found people were living," said Bakhitov in the video released by the local interior ministry.
"The space was built as a labyrinth. There are rooms measuring two by three metres," (six feet by 10), he said.
The police said they had established that around 60 people were living in the underground quarters.
Faizrakhman Satarov, identified as the group's 85-year-old leader, had declared himself a prophet in 1964, the interior ministry said.
In 1996, Satarov acquired land for an Islamic school and built living quarters on the land where "gradually all the members of the sect moved to live permanently," police said.
"Faizrakhman's supporters lead a closed way of life, not leaving their shelter without extreme necessity," the ministry said.
"The children of the commune grew up in the same conditions. They did not go to educational and medical institutions, which is the most severe breach of children's rights."
Police said they had opened a criminal case against Satarov for his "arbitrariness" in running the compound, a crime that carries a prison term of up to six months.
They also opened separate investigations into members' suspected meglect and cruel treatment of their children, carrying a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
The case echoes that of a 35-member Doomsday sect that holed up in an underground cave in a region southeast of Moscow in 2007, only emerging after the end of the world failed to materialise.
The July 19 attacks that sparked the search targeted Tatarstan's chief Muslim cleric, Ildus Faizov, who survived a car bombing, while his one-time deputy was killed in a shooting.
A militant this month claimed the attack in a video posted online.
The semi-Muslim republic is often held up as an example of religious tolerance with a huge mosque standing beside an Orthodox cathedral in Kazan, the capital.