Bodies of 153 more cult members found murdered in mass grave

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A week after more than 300 people of a religious sect were burned alive in what authorities had called a mass suicide, police on Friday uncovered the weeks-old mutilated and strangled bodies of 153 more sect members in three mass graves.

With Friday's discovery, authorities began treating all the deaths as homicides.

"It was definitely murder," chief police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said.

The bodies, including those of 59 children, were found Friday in a house near the southwestern town of Rukungiri, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the site of March 17 conflagration at the compound of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.

Police had gone to the house as part of their countrywide investigation into the sect's activities.

Police initially viewed the deaths of the adults killed in the Kanungu inferno as suicide and those under 18 as murder victims.

"We had assumed the adults consented to joining the sect," Mugenyi told The Associated Press. "We thought the members participated in the fire, but now we have discovered these people who were murdered things have changed."

The three graves were dug into the floors of two rooms of an abandoned house. Police found them during search of property belonging to the sect. After they had been examined by pathologists, the bodies were reburied in two mass graves.

The bodies found Friday near the town of Rukungiri appeared to have been buried up to six weeks ago, Mugenyi said.

Police were continuing to investigate other districts where the sect was believed to have branches. He said the group had branches in at least four districts and members from nine.

The spokesman said it was still not known if the leaders were among the dead in Kanungu, 347 kilometers (217 miles) southwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. If they were still alive they had probably left Uganda, he said.

The estimated death toll in the Kanungu blaze has ranged from 150 to 600, and the cause has been attributed to gasoline, a bomb or both. There have been conflicting reports about the willingness of some sect members to commit suicide.

Minister of State for Regional Cooperation Amama Mbabazi, who visited Kanungu on Wednesday, said two top sect leaders may not have died in the inferno as had been believed.

Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, and Joseph Kibweteere, 68, who was also known as the prophet, may both have left the compound before the fire.

Mbabazi said a 17-year-old cult member who had slipped away from the church before the fire said Kibweteere was not there at the time. The minister said some local residents had also reported seeing Mwerinde leave the compound.

Police initially said all the group's leaders had died, but officials said later that only two leaders' bodies had been positively identified - the manager of the sect's farm and "a priest." A number of the group's leaders were former Roman Catholic priests, lay workers and nuns.

Uganda's ill-funded and under-trained police force has been overwhelmed by the investigation, and many questions remain about what happened in Kanungu.

Various reports put sect membership anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 in nine districts in Uganda, a country of 21 million. It was a legally registered as a non-governmental organization.

Uganda has cracked down on a number of sects in recent years. In the past year, police have broken up two sects, including the 1,000-member World Message Last Warning Church.