May 9, 2023 _ SHAKAHOLA FOREST, Kenya (Reuters) – Kenyan investigators exhumed 21 more bodies on Tuesday as they resumed a search for followers of a doomsday cult, who the interior minister described as victims of a “highly organised crime”.
Paul Mackenzie, leader of the Good News International Church, is in custody accused of ordering followers to starve their children and themselves so they could go to heaven before the end of the world, which he said would come on April 15.
The latest figures on bodies exhumed, announced by regional official Rhoda Onyancha, bring the death toll to 133. The exhumations are expected to resume on Wednesday.
The search operation in the Shakahola forest in southeastern Kenya had been suspended for a few days because of bad weather, with hundreds of people still reported missing.
“We have many more graves in this forest, and therefore it leads us to conclude that this was a highly organised crime,” Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters during a visit to the forest, where workers wearing hazmat suits and masks were digging up graves.
Kindiki said earlier on Twitter that post-mortem examinations on 112 bodies that had been exhumed or recovered had ended. Search and rescue efforts for people “suspected to be holed up in the thickets and bushes have been going on”.
President William Ruto on Friday announced an inquiry into the mass deaths, while a court kept Mackenzie in detention pending further investigations.
Mackenzie has not yet been required to enter a plea. His lawyer, George Kariuki, said he was cooperating with police.
Mackenzie wants the investigation not to be “one-sided” by focusing on him, the lawyer said. Police should keep an open mind in order to unravel the “mess”, Kariuki told Reuters, providing no further clarification.
Last week a court released on bail prominent televangelist Ezekiel Odero, who authorities say they suspect of being involved in the mass killing of his own followers.
Unlike in Mackenzie’s case, police and authorities have not said anything about any bodies being found.
Odero is also suspected of helping launder money for Mackenzie, according to court documents seen by Reuters in which police say “huge cash transactions” thought to be linked to the sale of houses belonging to Mackenzie’s followers were traced to Odero’s bank accounts.
Reuters could not immediately reach a lawyer representing Odero.
(Reporting by Dicksy Obiero and Joseph Akwiri in the Shakahola Forest, Duncan Miriri, Hereward Holland, Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi; Writing by Hereward Holland and Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Nick Macfie and Deepa Babington)