GENEVA, Oct. 5 -- At least 48 members of a religious sect died in an apparent mass suicide Wednesday, police said after grim searches in the smouldering ruins of a farm and three chalets at two different locations in Switzerland. Witnesses said several children were among the dead. As details of the bizarre incidents slowly emerged, police said the fires that destroyed the buildings apparently were triggered by sophisticated devices that could have been activated by a telephone call. The dead, in what could be Europe's biggest case of mass suicide in recent history, were Canadian, French and Swiss nationals. Police and firemen counted 48 bodies, but authorities said they expect the death toll to continue rising after they gain access to a chalet they have been unable to search because its roof collapsed during the fire. Some of the bodies were so badly burned that identification was not immediately possible. The Swiss news agency said two of the three chalets were owned by Canadian-born Luc Jouret, believed to be head of the Order of the Solar Temple sect, which is thought to have originated in the United States. The third chalet was owned by a French colleague of Jouret and the farmhouse was owned by a Swiss citizen. In another possibly related incident, two people died Tuesday night when a duplex near Montreal, owned by Jouret and a French colleague, was destroyed by fire. It was not immediately clear whether either of the victims of the fire was Jouret or his colleague.
Jouret, a 46 year-old homeopath who recently fled to Switzerland to escape the Canadian authorities, is wanted in Montreal for possession of illegal weapons. It is believed his sect advocated stockpiling weapons to prepare for the end of the world. However, the Swiss authorities have not revealed if there was an arms cache at either of the two sites. The bodies of 23 people were found in a secret chamber under a farmhouse near the village of Cheiry, 45 miles (72 km) northeast of Geneva. Most of the dead were dressed in red and white robes, had plastic bags over their heads and were tied to one another. The chamber, accessible only through a hidden door, was outfitted with an altar and tables and chairs for 26 people. The owner of the farm was found lying in bed with a bullet wound to the head and a plastic bag over his head. He is thought to have been killed by a .22 calibre long rifle that police found at the scene. Police investigators said six of the dead were from Geneva, five from France, four from Canada, seven from other parts of Switzerland and one is still unidentified. Of those killed at Cheiry, there were 10 men, 12 women and a ten-year old boy. The adults ranged in age from 22 to 80. Twenty had gunshot wounds, some more than one, and ten were found with plastic bags over their heads. Police investigators recovered 52 cartridges from the scene. There is still no apparent motive for the mass suicides. The farmhouse was known by local residents to be a meeting point for the sect. The property was bought in the late 1980s, officially for biological research, by a firm trading under the name Bio Agriculture, the Swiss news agency said. About 45 miles (72 km) away, at Granges-sur-Salvan, near Martigny, police found the bodies of 25 more people in two burned chalets. The roof of a third chalet collapsed when firefighters arrived at the scene. There were no immediate details available on the dead. Police spokesman Carlo Kuonen said there was no evidence that a struggle or agressive behaviour had taken place at the scene. 'Apparently, they were somehow put to sleep,' he said. The Swiss news agency quoted witnesses as saying the bodies in Granges-sur-Salvan did not appear to have bullet wounds and did not have plastic bags over their heads. The witnesses said there were several children among the dead. The investigating judge at the scene, Andre Pillar, told reporters that the authorities had recovered an audio cassette and several video tapes from the farmhouse. He did not reveal the contents. Outside the buildings at both locations lie empty gasoline cans and equipment that could have been used to make several bombs. Swiss police have declined to give information regarding the sect, and it is believed the authorities were not aware the group had a base in Switzerland.