updated 3/28/2008 7:11:31 PM ET 2008-03-28T23:11:31

Seven women who had holed up in a cave for months with other members of a Russian cult awaiting the end of the world emerged Friday night and were being treated by emergency workers, regional officials said.

More than two dozen others remained behind but were expected to come out as early as Saturday, the governor's office said.

About 35 members of the Christian cult entered the cave near the village of Nikolskoye, 400 miles southeast of Moscow, in early November to await the end of the world, which they expected in May. They threatened to detonate gas canisters if police tried to remove them by force.

The vice governor of the Penza region, Oleg Melnichenko, said in televised comments that the seven women came out voluntarily, carrying satchels with their belongings. He said the cult leader, the self-declared prophet Pyotr Kuznetsov, was brought from a local psychiatric hospital to help persuade the women to leave.

He said the women walked on their own nearly a mile to a prayer house, where emergency workers were talking with them, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

"There is no reason to urgently hospitalize any of them," Melnichenko was quoted as saying.

Four children still reported in cave
Another official in the governor's office, who gave only his first name, Alexander, said the other cult members still in the cave were expected to give up their vigil, perhaps by Saturday. He said four children, reportedly under age 2, were among those in the cave.

Melnichenko said officials feared that melting snow could eventually lead to the collapse of the cave, but there was no immediate threat to those who remained behind.

Officials had repeatedly enlisted the help of priests from the Orthodox Church in an effort to persuade the group to leave, communicating mainly through a small chimney pipe that poked up through the snowy hillside.

Earlier this week, Melnichenko told reporters that some of the cult members had indicated they might leave the cave on Orthodox Easter, which is April 27.

Leader in psychiatric hospital
Kuznetsov has been charged with setting up a religious organization associated with violence. Earlier this week, officials said they had seized literature that included what appeared to be extremist rhetoric. He has been confined to a psychiatric hospital since November.

An engineer from a devout family, Kuznetsov, who goes by the title of Father Pyotr, declared himself a prophet several years ago. He left his family and established the True Russian Orthodox Church and recruited followers in Russia and Belarus.

He reportedly told followers that, in the afterlife, they would judge whether others deserved heaven or hell.

Followers were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, Russian media reported.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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