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Hillary ORINDE

Kenyan pastor suspected of links to forest massacre: prosecutors

Kenyan investigators have unearthed dozens of bodies from forest graves . ©AFP

Nairobi (AFP) - A high-profile Kenyan pastor appeared in court on Friday suspected of links to the murder of dozens of people found in mass graves that has been dubbed the "Shakahola forest massacre".

Ezekiel Odero, the flamboyant head of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, was arrested on Thursday in the coastal town of Malindi and is accused of the "mass killing" of his followers.

It followed the arrest of Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, a cult leader accused of the deaths of dozens of his followers who were allegedly ordered to starve themselves to death to find God.

The unearthing of bodies of victims in Shakahola forest near Malindi over the past week has shocked the largely Christian nation and led the government to promise to crack down on fringe religious groups.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki, making his second visit to the crime scene on Friday, announced a shakeup in the local police and security services with the transfer of top bosses, but gave no reasons.

Prosecutors said Odero is suspected of crimes including murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalisation, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.

The wealthy televangelist was arraigned in a magistrate's court in the port city of Mombasa, where prosecutors asked for him to be detained for another 30 days to enable police to complete their investigations.

Prosecutor Peter Kiprop said in court documents that there was "credible information" linking bodies exhumed from Shakahola forest to the deaths of "several innocent and vulnerable followers" of Odero.

"The police have established that several deaths...occurred within the precincts of the New Life Ministry" in Mavueni, not far from Malindi, he added, without giving a precise number.

Kiprop said police were investigating "intelligence information" that the bodies were kept in a privately-run morgue before being transported and buried in the forest.

'Radicalised messages'

Searches began in Shakahola forest earlier this month after a tipoff to police who initially found 15 starving people, four of whom died.

The death toll now stands at 109, after 11 bodies were exhumed on Thursday, a police source told AFP.

More than half the victims are children, according to sources close to the investigation.

Kindiki also announced that in addition to the ongoing land-based operations in Shakahola, an air-based search would be launched to try to expedite the process.

Kiprop's statement said police were investigating allegations that Nthenge's followers "would dispose of all their earthly possessions and surrender the proceeds to him as part of the preparations to meet their maker".

He also said Odero and Nthenge, who headed the Good News International Church, share a "history of business investments" including a television station which was used to pass "radicalised messages" to followers.

An investigator said in an affidavit to the court that police were planning to investigate "extortion" by the two men of their vulnerable victims and the laundering of the proceeds by creating institutions such as schools, petrol stations, farms and a media house.

The Communications Authority of Kenya announced Friday that it had suspended broadcasting of TV channels operated by the two churches.

Nthenge, a former taxi driver who has faced criminal charges in the past, is himself due in court in Malindi on Tuesday.

Another court hearing will be held the same day for Odero to rule on the police request for a 30-day detention. 

No exhumations were carried out on Friday because of bad weather, Kindiki said, while the local director for the Red Cross, Hassan Musa, told AFP that autopsies on the recovered bodies had not yet begun.

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