Ugandan death count rises as 40 more bodies found

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Prisoners under armed guard on Monday uncovered 40 bodies from a mass grave hidden at the edge of a sugarcane field, where authorities suspect more members of a doomsday Christian sect remain buried.

Prisoners under armed guard on Monday uncovered 40 bodies from a mass grave hidden at the edge of a sugarcane field, where authorities suspect more members of a doomsday Christian sect remain buried.

Some of the bodies showed signs of stab wounds while some others had pieces of cloth wrapped tightly around their throats.

The prisoners, with their shirts off and their pants rolled up, wrapped their noses in gauze and shared cigarettes to ward off the stench of rotting corpses, which drifted for hundreds of yards across the lush hillsides.

The prisoners, released for the day from a local jail, quickly unearthed the badly decomposed remains of 40 people, including at least two babies, and were continuing to dig Monday afternoon. Bodies buried together, or without coffins, are highly unusual in Africa, where funeral rituals are deeply important.

Following cursory examinations by a local doctor, the bodies were thrown into a nearby trench for reburial.

The haphazard investigation came as the Ugandan government announced it had set up dies found in the Rugazi grave and to re-exhume 153 corpses found in another compound belonging to the sect, officials said.

The team, which includes chemists, a pathologist and forensic experts, was gathering in Kampala, Uganda's capital, and would be heading into the interior in the next day or so, Eric Naigambi, a police spokesman, said by telephone from Kampala.

After going to Rugazi, the team was to go to the village of Buhunga, where they will re-exhume 153 bodies of sect members found in two mass graves there, quickly examined by a local doctor, and re-buried hours later.

Terenzi Kingera, a regional officer with Uganda's criminal investigation division, said the doctor had been "overwhelmed" by the job, so the corpses needed to be examined again.

With the bodies already being reburied in Rugazi, it was unclear how the investigators would proceed once they reached the village.

Kingera said the investigators' main goal would be figuring out "how could so many people be killed. Were they poisoned and with which kind of poison?"

The investigation into the deaths of hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God has been plagued by logistical problems since it began. The Ugandan police is ill-trained and desperately ill-funded, often without vehicles or fuel to power them.

"The flow of funds from the Ministry of Finance has always been poor," Paul Bachengana, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said from Kampala. He said that while the government had budgeted about 6 billion Ugandan shillings (dlrs 3.95 million), excluding wages, for the fiscal year, which ends in June, they had only received about half that.

An Ugandan legislator, meanwhile, has speculated that sect leaders orchestrated the deaths of their followers and then fled.

Senior Ugandan officials have quoted witnesses as saying the sect's two top leaders - Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, and Joseph Kibweteere, 68 - may have left the village of Kanungu on March 17, the same day a fire in a makeshift sect church there killed 330 members. Those reports are unconfirmed.

The deaths in Kanungu - which set off the investigation - were initially viewed as a mass suicide. However, officials, police and villagers have speculated that the two leaders fled as the sect grew increasingly divided over the fact that the world did not end Dec. 31 as was predicted and wanted back their belongings, which they had surrendered on joining the sect.

Jim Muhezi, a member of parliament and a onetime head of Uganda's internal security agency, theorized Saturday that sect leaders cracked down viciously on the defiant, poisoning some, and urging the mass suicide to curb further defections.

Days after the Kanungu fire, the 153 bodies were found in Buhunga.

Police discovered the Rugazi grave Friday, when they came to inspect the compound that until recently belonged to Dominic Kataribabo, a defrocked priest and a sect leader. Kataribabo is believed to have died in the Kanungu fire.

Kanungu, Buhunga and Rugazi are all in the mountains of southwestern Uganda, near the border with Rwanda and Congo and no more than 80 kilometers apart.

The sect had up to 1,000 members, and authorities here fear most may have become victims. Government officials are treating Kibweteere as a fugitive and the all the deaths as murder.