Children's corpses found in home of defrocked priest

Murder toll of Christian doomsday sect reaches 730 as another mass grave is discovered and others excavated in remote villages
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Twenty-eight more corpses, including at least three young children and a pregnant woman, were found yesterday buried under a freshly laid concrete floor in the home of one of the leaders of Uganda's doomsday religious cult.

The macabre find at the home of Dominic Kataribabo, a defrocked priest, brings to around 730 the number of dead cult members to be discovered in the past 10 days.

Kataribabo, a leader of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, is believed to have died in the fire which burned alive 600 members of the cult in a church in Kanungu, in the remote highlands of south-west Uganda, on 17 March.

Police, who are now treating all the deaths as murders, followed the stench of rotting bodies to a freshly cemented floor under the house in the village of Rugazi. Inmates of a local jail working under armed guard used crow-bars to smash through the floor of the ten- room brick house.

Rugazi was also the site where 74 bodies, 24 of them children, some with ropes around their necks, were unearthed on Monday from a cane field behind Kataribabo's house.

All of the dead appear to have been victims of a systematic killing spree orchestrated by the leaders of the cult, a quasi-Christian movement which had 4000 followers.

Hauled from the mass grave with shovels and flung on to the top of a pile of corpses, the body of one of the young children found in Rugazi barely surfaced before it was unceremoniously flung back into the dark earth and re-buried. Like most of the others, her name will never be known. Her last minutes will remain unimaginable.

The children pulled from Father Kataribabo's garden and from beneath his living room may have been drugged and strangled at one of the other remote sights before being trucked to their graves. Local intoxicants, herbal sedatives and discarded bottles of poison suggest members were weakened and drugged before being killed.

The investigation into the deaths of these children and their parents could yet become the world's biggest mass murder hunt, but for now it remains shambolic.

During the endless wait for a specialised forensic team from Kampala, bodies have been re-buried by local police almost as quickly as they have been dug up. Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the murders, the poorly funded and ill-equipped security teams are destroying vital evidence as quickly as they come across it.

Initially the incineration of an entire congregation in Kanungu was treated as a ritualistic cult suicide. Joseph Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet who led a group of educated former priests and charismatic women visionaries, had predicted Armageddon a number of times and, it appeared, had finally decided to make it happen.

Propelled by a Western fascination for cult mass suicide, the Kanungu deaths were quickly given an international rating among famous self-destructing sects.

But from the start Ugandans took a more earthly view. Relatives and neighbours called it murder. Four days after the "suicide", six slashed and strangled bodies were exhumed from the latrines. Former cult members told of sinister control and witchcraft.

According to accounts of former members of the cult, the young child who surfaced from her hidden grave so briefly would have woken to a loud bell at 5.45am every day to slave in the fields before enduring a disrupted night of prayer and visionary lectures. She had to fast twice a week, lived on porridge and suffered untreated illness. She was not allowed to speak. Her parents could use only sign language to comfort her.

The secret of the cult's survival seemed to be a slavish attention to legitimacy - taxes were paid, the cult was registered, and a good relationship was maintained with officials. So cosy was this relationship - and so incomprehensible that a murderous sect went undetected - some local personnel have been accused of secret membership.

Two of the main leaders, former Catholic priest Joseph Kibwetere and the former prostitute Credonia Mwerinde, may have fled across poorly controlled borders.

Kibwetere was excommunicated when he challenged the Pope and claimed to speak with Jesus Christ in the early 1990s. He and Kataribabo had been passed over for promotion in the church. Kibwetere briefly turned to politics, but his wealth and social standing was destroyed during decades of violent misrule in Uganda.