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Kenya starvation cult 'massacre' toll climbs to 89

The discovery of shallow mass graves has sent shockwaves through the country. ©AFP

Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) - Kenyan investigators unearthed another 16 bodies on Tuesday in a forest where a cult was believed to be practising mass starvation, bringing the number of victims so far to 89 including children.

There are fears more corpses could be found in Shakahola forest where cult leader Paul Mackenzie Nthenge had allegedly been telling his followers that starvation was the only path to God.

Children are among the latest victims of the "Shakahola Forest Massacre", with search teams in white overalls still undertaking the macabre task inland from Malindi on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast.

The grim discovery has shocked the nation and President William Ruto has pledged a crackdown on "unacceptable" religious movements as horrifying details unfold by the day.

Visiting the site on Tuesday, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki warned that worse could still come.

"We don't know how many more graves, how many more bodies, we are likely to discover," he told reporters, adding the crimes were serious enough to warrant terrorism charges against Nthenge.

He said 34 people had been found alive so far in the vast forest, where police were tipped off about the cult's activities and a crime scene has been established.

"The majority of the bodies exhumed are children," a forensic investigator told AFP on condition of anonymity.

As the fatalities mounted, authorities at the state-run Malindi Sub-County Hospital warned that the morgue was running out of space to store the bodies and already operating well over capacity.

"The hospital mortuary has a capacity of 40 bodies," said the hospital's administrator Said Ali, adding that officials had reached out to the Kenya Red Cross for refrigerated containers.

It is believed that some followers of the Good News International Church could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola and at risk of death if not quickly found.

Hussein Khalid, executive director of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police, urged the authorities to send more rescuers to scour the 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland for survivors.

"Each day that passes by there is very high possibility that more are dying," he told AFP, saying 50 to 60 percent of the victims were children.

"The horror that we have seen over the last four days is traumatising.Nothing prepares you for shallow mass graves of children." 

Investigators told AFP they found bodies squeezed into shallow pits -- with up to six people inside one grave -- while others were simply left outside on the ground.

'Unacceptable ideology'

Ruto vowed to take action against rogue pastors like Nthenge "who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology", comparing them to terrorists.

As the investigation unfolds, questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Nthenge attracting police attention six years ago.

The televangelist had been arrested in 2017 on charges of "radicalisation" after urging families not to send their children to school, saying education was not recognised by the Bible. 

Nthenge was arrested again last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.

He was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($700) before surrendering to police following the Shakahola raid.

Nthenge is due to appear in court on May 2.

The Kenya Red Cross said 212 people had been reported missing to its support staff in Malindi, out of which two were reunited with their families.

The case has prompted calls for tighter control of fringe denominations in a country with a troubling history of self-declared pastors and cults that have dabbled in criminality.


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