LONDON, Nov 21, 1999 (Reuters) - As millions across Britain party the night away this Millennium New Year, for some it may well prove that the end of the world is rather more than nigh.
While colourful druids and pagans swarm to sacred sites to celebrate the new millennium, others could well be preparing for the occasion with apocalyptic gloom, doom and possible ritual mass suicides, cult experts warn.
"It is possible some cult leaders will do something drastic to mark the millennium and it could happen here," said Ian Haworth, a sect expert at the Cult Information Centre. "You certainly can't rule it out."
"There has been a bit of a lull, so maybe this is the proverbial calm before the storm," said Haworth, estimating Britain is currently home to some 500 cults and thousands of followers.
Some say rumours of impending bids to trigger Armageddon are already circulating.
"We have to be prepared that there might be some people planning serious acts to coincide with the millennium," said Audrey Chaytor of cult study group FAIR (Family Action Information Resource).
"And we have heard rumours about possible dangerous acts," she added, declining to elaborate.
Britain is not the only country scrambling to make provisions for any possible Doomsday rituals.
In the United States the FBI has warned fringe groups and cults pose a very real threat, while Canada, Greece and Australia have all voiced fears of ritual multiple suicides.
Israel has stepped up its own campaign against suspected cults, deporting a group of British and American Christians from Jerusalem they believe were planning violent acts to hasten Christ's second coming.
But British police stopped short of predicting mayhem, simply saying they were keeping a close eye on all groups deemed a potential threat to the public.
"As a matter of routine police monitor any groups or individuals who could cause public disorder problems or terrorist related activity," a Scotland Yard Police special operations spokeswoman said.
"In the run-up to the millennium, officers will continue to monitor the activities and behaviour of any groups or individuals who could pose such a threat," she added.
Some however say the hype surrounding millennium festivities could, if anything, decrease the chances of a repeat of the kind of mass suicides carried out by the Heaven's Gate and Solar Temple sects.
The bodies of 39 Heaven's Gate members who believed they would be picked up by a UFO as the Hale-Bopp comet passed over them were found in a suburb of San Diego in May 1997. The Order of the Solar Temple has been implicated in more than 70 deaths in Canada and Europe over the past five years.
"The fact everyone is expecting something to occur might decrease the chances of dramatic action by religious movements as it won't be so set aside -- they will be sharing in the raised expectation and excitement," said Rachel Storm, spokeswoman for religious movement research group INFORM.
Nonetheless, Britain's ancient druid magnet, the mystical Stonehenge stone circle is taking no chances.
It is due to bolster security and close mid-afternoon on New Year's Eve after more than 200 people broke into the site earlier this year to mark the summer solstice.