Authorities took custody Friday of 18 girls who had been living at a secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs, currently in jail in Arizona awaiting a second trial for incest and sexual conduct charges, is leader of a polygamous sect that includes about 1,000 followers in the religious community of Bountiful, B.C.

Fifty-two girls, ages six months to 17 years, were put on a bus and taken away from the compound in the afternoon, said Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for state Child Protective Services.

About half the children had been interviewed so far, with a judge giving the state custody of about a third of the girls removed from the retreat.

Authorities entered the retreat, built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, late Thursday and served search and arrest warrants Friday. There were no arrests by the afternoon.

The bus left the compound filled with what appeared to be mostly girls, dressed in the conservative long-sleeve dresses.

Schleicher County Attorney Raymond Loomis Jr. said a girl apparently called authorities to complain, but he had no other details.

Members of sect co-operating

Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said child welfare officials were responding to a complaint, but he could provide no details.

"The people inside are co-operating. They provided all the people we wanted to talk to," he said.

The ranch is north of the two-stoplight town of Eldorado, down a narrow paved road. Authorities blocked access to the compound's gate, keeping onlookers away.

Only the compound's 24-metre-tall, gleaming white temple is visible on the desert horizon, but Vinger said the ranch has numerous buildings. Local authorities in 2006 put the figure at about 150.

The congregation, known as FLDS and led by Jeffs since his father's death in 2002, is one of several groups that split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), based in Salt Lake City, decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890. 

In November, Jeffs was given two consecutive sentences of five years to life in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001.

In Arizona, Jeffs is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial.