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Kenyans fear for relatives linked to cult as search for bodies resumes

A member of the Kenya Red Cross comforts a rescued follower of the Good News International Church. ©AFP

Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) - Weeping relatives on Wednesday awaited news of loved ones linked to a suspected starvation cult in Kenya as police resumed the search for victims after unearthing dozens of bodies since last week.

The discovery of mass graves in Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi has shocked Kenyans, with cult leader Paul Mackenzie Nthenge accused of driving his followers to death by preaching that starvation was the only path to God.

As the death toll hit 90 on Tuesday, police said investigators were pausing the search for bodies because the morgues were full, with children accounting for more than half the victims.

But on Wednesday morning, search teams resumed operations, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

"The exhumation is going on," a police officer told AFP.

The gruesome saga, which has been dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre," has prompted calls for a crackdown on fringe religious outfits in the largely Christian country.

At the state-run Malindi Sub-County Hospital, whose morgue is already stretched well beyond capacity with dozens of bodies, families were desperate to know if their loved ones had been found.

"The last time I saw my mum was in February, she was part of the cult," 16-year-old Issa Ali told AFP.

"She was so weak the last time I saw her," the soft-spoken teenager added.

Hassan Musa, a Kenya Red Cross official, told AFP that 311 people, "including 150 minors" had been reported missing to its support staff in Malindi.

"We don't know how many more graves, how many more bodies, we are likely to discover," Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters during a visit to the site on Tuesday, adding the crimes were serious enough to warrant terrorism charges against Nthenge.

The majority of the dead were children, according to three sources close to the investigation, highlighting the macabre nature of the cult's alleged practices which included urging parents to starve their offspring.

Starving children

Hussein Khalid, executive director of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police to Nthenge's activities, told AFP that the Good News International Church appeared to require children to starve first, followed by women, and finally men.

He said 50 to 60 percent of the victims were children, whose bodies were found wrapped in cotton shrouds inside shallow pits.

Kenya Red Cross official Kawthar Muhamed told AFP on Wednesday that rescuers had "found two more persons in the bush this morning".

Kindiki said Tuesday that 34 people had been found alive so far in the 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland around Shakahola.

Kenya's President William Ruto has vowed to take action against rogue pastors like Nthenge "who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology".

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.

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