Hundreds are feared murdered in pits at cult's site

Sceptical followers were killed by poison and suffocation in latrines after millennium Doomsday predictions failed

Police brought sledgehammers, breathing equipment and masks to begin excavating old pit latrines yesterday in the Kanungu commune, where they believe dissenting members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments were murdered days before the apparent mass suicide of 17 March.

Lack of equipment and government support have prevented police and public health officials from beginning the gruesome operation, where adult corpses can be seen by torchlight in the deep underground pit under a commune house. Officers fear there may be hundreds of bodies in the hastily cemented-over pit.

So far, there are no known survivors among the estimated 600 cult members known to have gathered at Kanungu since January; 330 bodies, including 78 children, have been identified in the charred remains of the church building. Investigators have no mechanised diggers or heavy machinery to break open the concrete grave. Officers now say the latrine deaths look more a mass murder than mass suicide. The cult members appear to have been slaughtered for questioning the predictions of the defrocked self-styled prophet Joseph Kibwetere.

Sources say people who questioned his predictions of Armageddon, or refused to participate in a planned suicide, were killed a few days before. The lack of wounds on the visible bodies suggest victims were poisoned or suffocated.

Police have identified at least 10 cult leaders, including four women, but not all the leaders' bodies have been found. The Assistant Resident District Commissioner, Stephen Bangumya, said Kibwetere had escaped the Kanungu inferno. Other security officials say he may have fled the country.

Speculation now focuses on why people were killed and cemented up in the pit. Bodies in the commune house could be from dissenting lower leaders, including the charismatic woman priestess and former prostitute, Credina Mwerinde.

Kibwetere predicted the world would end on the eve of the millennium and told followers to sell their property and wait to be rewarded for their devotion. Security officials believe rows began after 1 January and members began to leave.

In January, Kibwetere wrote to a local newspaper, reassuring followers that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary had appeared to him with new prophecies of Armageddon. He had also submitted a report to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, stating the mission was coming to an end. It said next year would be "new generation, year number one", officials said.

Police believe the architect of the murders and suicide escaped and they point to the nailing of doors and windows from the outside, as well as the early murders and the cementing over of the latrine graves.

Surviving leaders may have masterminded the mass "suicide" of remaining members in an attempt to keep the earlier murders secret, say investigators.

Cult members may have been persuaded they would experience a supernatural event while chanting and praying in their robes in the church building. Instead, they found themselves trapped in a fierce fire, possibly started with petrol and fertilising chemicals.

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