Poison claim as more Uganda cult bodies found

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The Independent Online

Mechanised diggers began the task of burying bodies in the Kanungu commune yesterday, after allowing grieving relatives time to take pieces of cloth, ash and bone to carry out personal burial rituals, as yet more bodies were discovered buried in disused latrines, apparently poisoned.

Mechanised diggers began the task of burying bodies in the Kanungu commune yesterday, after allowing grieving relatives time to take pieces of cloth, ash and bone to carry out personal burial rituals, as yet more bodies were discovered buried in disused latrines, apparently poisoned.

A pathologist flown in from Kampala released an initial figure of 330 dead, including 78 children, based on the number of skulls identifiable in the charred mass of incinerated bodies in the church building. But the grisly discoveries in the latrines - arms, legs and clothes just visible by torchlight in the deep underground pits - seemed likely to increase this number dramatically.

The assistant commissioner of police, Stephen Okwalinga, said police would excavate the latrines as soon as possible, and would also investigate recently dug vegetable gardens. Relatives and local officials claim people buried in the latrines may have been poisoned before the mass suicide, because the holes in the ground had been recently cemented over.

Yesterday, a steady line of relatives and security personnel continued to file through the narrow corridors and cubicles of the communal latrines, searching for signs of bodies, holding cloth and herbs to their nose to cope with the stench.

Mr Okwalinga said the police were investigating the commune deaths as "suicide and murder". There was evidence that the people had collected letters and photographs in the commune of "visiting white people". A police spokesman Afuman Mugenyi said the cult appeared to have ties with France, Austria, Italy and Germany, but did not give details.

Police say the cult was very secretive and they have only one woman helping with inquiries who had tried to visit family members the night before the suicide.

Inside the church building where people were incinerated, the heaviest concentration of distinguishable adult bodies is in the middle of the room, where a congregation appeared to have been headed by two or three leaders. Most of the children were at the back, or under the adult bodies. Most gruesome is the semi-burnt body of a large man in a cassock lying just inside the boarded-up doorway, with a small child near his arms. There has been much local speculation that this was self-styled prophet Joseph Kibwetere.

Police say a number of leaders have been identified as dead but have not confirmed Kibwetere, or "priestess" Credonia Mwerinde, dead. Local papers report that Kibwetere's wife Theresa, who was not part of the movement, had received a letter from him written on 16 March encouraging her to carry on with the religion because members were going to die. Small tins of margarine and oil found among the corpses suggest some of the congregation may have smeared themselves with oil before chanting and singing, say officials. They were then locked into the room.

Any further clues to the behaviour of the fated congregation have now been buried as, by last night, mechanised diggers had demolished the building and pushed the tangled, charred mass of bones and flesh into a trench dug by local prisoners. Although many of the cult members were probably expecting a "miracle" rather than an agonising death, events suggest planned suicide on the part of the leaders - this included sales of property, predictions of the end of the world, a cult constitution and title deeds deposited at the local police station.

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