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Police officers 'prevent women fleeing US sect'

Police officers in a town dominated by one of the largest polygamous sects in the US have been preventing women from leaving, it has been claimed.

A criminal investigation has been launched into the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and the Marshal's Office, which serves as a small police force in the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

Warren Jeffs, head of the FLDS, is in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting two of his underage brides.

Arizona's attorney general Tom Horne held a news conference in Phoenix to announce that a woman had been granted temporary custody of her six children, and had left Colorado City.

Mr Horne said the 26-year-old was forced by Jeffs to marry her brother-in-law at the age of 14, and had since been virtually held captive in the town on the Utah-Arizona border, along with many other women who want to leave.

"What they do is say: 'Everybody watch her so she won't run away.' Then she can't leave," Mr Horne said.

"Women who wanted to escape have been forcibly held by the marshals against their will."

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Lawyers for the two towns and the Marshal's Office denied the charges, calling Mr Horne's words "inflammatory."

"I can't speak for the FLDS but the bottom line is the Marshal's Office absolutely does not hold people against their will," said lawyer Blake Hamilton.

"The Arizona attorney general, as the highest ranking law enforcement official in Arizona, ought not be making those statements unless he has evidence of it.

"It's just absolutely not true."

The church does not have a spokesman to speak on its behalf, and Jeffs, who is said to still rule the sect, is jailed for life in Texas after convictions on child sex and bigamy charges.

Mr Horne was joined at the news conference by Flora Jessop, a vocal critic of the FLDS who fled the church in 1986. She was flanked by her sister, Ruby Jessop, and the woman's six young children.

Flora Jessop said her sister had been held captive by the FLDS for years, undergoing sexual and mental abuse at the hands of her husband while not being allowed to leave with her children.

Ruby Jessop finally fled last year, and recently won temporary custody of her children who were being held "hostage" by the sect, Flora Jessop said.

"It's a good day for freedom," she said.

Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said his agency is also involved in a criminal investigation of the FLDS and the Marshal's Office.

He described authorities there as "security guards for the FLDS church".

Mr Sheahan said: "They are corrupt and work only for the FLDS and Warren Jeffs."

Last year, the US justice department sued Colorado City and Hildale, claiming discrimination against residents who are not FLDS members.

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