Page last updated at 00:51 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 01:51 UK

Hundreds leave Texan sect ranch

Members of the sect stand outside Fort Concho, where the people removed are being housed
The women and children are being housed in an old frontier fort

Authorities in Texas have removed more than 400 children and 130 women from a compound belonging to a polygamist sect as part of a child abuse inquiry.

They moved in on Friday after a teenage girl phoned to say she had been abused at the ranch in Schleicher County.

Women and girls in long dresses with their hair pinned up in braids could be seen leaving the ranch voluntarily.

State troopers were still holding an unknown number of men inside as they searched the 1,700-acre compound.

It is still unclear whether the girl who sparked the search has been found. Those removed are being housed at Fort Concho, an old frontier fort.

The sprawling ranch is located about 160 miles (260km) north-west of the Texan town of San Antonio and includes large housing units, a medical facility and a temple. It is not known how many people live there.

It is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway branch of Mormonism.

'Mother at 15'

The sect's prophet is Warren Jeffs, a self-confessed polygamist who was jailed last year for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who married her cousin.

Church built at the FLDS's compound in Texas (2005)
Sect members believe men must have at least three wives to get to heaven

Authorities have kept the ranch under surveillance since it was bought by the sect five years ago.

The 16-year-old who phoned said she had been sexually and physically abused.

She also said she had given birth at the age of 15 to a child fathered by her 50-year-old husband.

It is illegal in Texas for girls under 16 to get married.

One person was arrested at the ranch for obstructing the search.

"For the most part, residents at the ranch have been cooperative," said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety.

Authorities describe it as the largest child welfare operation in the history of the state.

Waco fears

Officials have been authorised to remove computer hard drives, CDs, DVDs and photos.

Picture of Warren Jeffs taken after his arrest by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
Warren Jeffs led the breakaway Mormon sect from 2002

Jeffs was convicted after he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin.

The self-proclaimed prophet is currently awaiting trial in Arizona on charges of being an accomplice to four counts of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages.

His 10,000-strong sect, which dominates the towns of Colorado City in Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, split from the mainstream Mormon church more than a century ago.

Members believe a man must marry at least three wives in order to ascend to heaven. Women are meanwhile taught that their path to heaven depends on being subservient to their husband.

Polygamy is illegal in the US, but the authorities have reportedly been reluctant to confront the FLDS for fear of sparking a tragedy similar to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, which led to the deaths of about 80 members.

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