(dpa) - Texas officials removed 52 girl children from the walled compound of a polygamist sect while police sealed off all roads to the ranch on suspicion that a teenage girl was raped there, media reports said late Friday.
The evacuation and lock-down came as police executed a search and arrest warrant for a 50-year-old man charged with marrying and fathering a child with a 16-year-old girl, the San Angelo, Texas, Standard Times reported online.
Two white busses bearing the name of a local Baptist church were shown carrying the girls, aged six months to 17 years old, away from the West Texas compound on CNN.
The colony near Eldorado, in west Texas, was founded by Warren Jeffs, leader of a breakaway Mormon sect that openly practices polygamy.
Jeffs was sentenced last year to ten years to life in prison for coercing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin, which made him an accomplice to rape.
Officials were still interviewing people at the compound, Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services (CPS), told CNN.
"We are dealing with many victims," Meisner was quoted as saying by the Standard Times. "There's evidence they have been abused or are at imminent risk or harm. It is not safe for them to remain on the compound."
Eighteen of the girls were placed in CPS custody, she said, while the remaining 34 girls were being interviewed.
"The actions we've taken today have nothing to do with religion or lifestyle," Darrell Azar, another spokesman for CPS, was quoted as saying by the Houston Chronicle. "The pure interest is in protecting children from abuse and neglect. That's what we have done."
The sect came to the 850-hectare Texas ranch in 2003, where they have also built a temple. The compound was sealed off late Thursday by police as they executed the warrant, the San Angelo newspaper reported.
In Jeffs' trial, prosecutors charged he had used his religious authority as leader of the 10,000- member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which openly practices polygamy, to force the 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin.
During the trial, the girl testified that she was told by Jeffs that her salvation would be endangered should she refuse to marry her cousin.
Jeffs, who was on the FBI's most-wanted list, has allegedly arranged marriages for girls as young as 13 and faces charges in Arizona of being an accomplice to incest and accomplice to sex with minors.