By Chris Baldwin
NIKOLSKOE, Russia (Reuters) - Fourteen members of a Russiandoomsday cult on Tuesday abandoned the remote undergroundbunker where they had been hiding for nearly half a yearawaiting the end of the world.
The local chief negotiator said 14 cult members whoremained underground would spend the night in the bunkerpraying for a sign from God that it was time for them to comeout.
"They understand this is a chance the Lord is giving them,"said Oleg Melnichenko, deputy governor of the Penza regionwhere cult members have been holed up since October.
"They will pray all night in the hopes that a sign comes tothem to leave their bunker," he told reporters as the lightfaded after a day of negotiations with members of the cult.
The group that came out of the bunker early on Tuesdayincluded two girls aged 8 and 12. The negotiator said theydecided to leave after a section of their dugout collapsed, thelatest in a series of cave-ins.
"All are in good health, considering they have spent half ayear underground," said Melnichenko.
"They have refused medical attention and are now in ahouse, praying, where they say they will stay until OrthodoxEaster (on April 27) ... They said that God had given them asignal to leave."
The sect is an ultra-devout splinter group of the RussianOrthodox church. They reject processed food and say bar codeson products are the work of Satan.
They sealed themselves off on October 27 in an earthenbunker dug into a gulley near the village of Nikolskoe, 750kilometres (450 miles) south east of Moscow.
Cult members had refused to come out of their bunker beforethe apocalypse, which their leader Pavel Kuznetsov -- nowundergoing psychiatric treatment -- predicted would happen inApril or May this year.
They had threatened to blow up gas canisters in theirbunker if police tried to bring them out by force.
A Reuters reporter who crawled down into a now abandonedsection of the bunker found a makeshift kitchen and a sleepingspace hollowed out of the earth. Among the belongings leftbehind were a chess set and pages from a children's book.
Someone had carved large images of flowers and plants onthe walls and cardboard covered the floor.
Seven female cult members left the dugout at the weekendafter meltwater caused part of the earth structure to collapse.
All the cult members who have emerged from the bunker werebeing kept in cottages in a nearby village. They brought withthem supplies from the dugout, including jars of pickledmushrooms. Police were stopping reporters from speaking tothem.
Officials had for weeks been trying to persuade members tocome out, negotiating through a ventilation shaft. They broughtself-declared prophet Kuznetsov, and an Orthodox priest, tohelp with negotiations.
Kuznetsov did not join his followers in the bunker, sayingGod had different tasks for him.
(Writing by James Kilner and Christian Lowe; Editing byMary Gabriel)