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Kenya Starvation Cult Victim Count Climbs

FILE: Members of the Kenya Red Cross and police officers attend to an emaciated member of a Christian cult named the "Good News International Church" in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya, April 23, 2023.

NAIROBI - The death toll in a case involving a Kenyan cult that practiced starvation climbed to 73 Monday, police sources told AFP as investigators unearthed more corpses from mass graves in a forest near the coast.

"We have 73 bodies from the forest by this evening and the exercise will continue tomorrow," a police officer involved in the probe told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"It is a very sad state of affairs on how these people died and were buried in shallow graves because we found six bodies squeezed in one grave today," he said.

Another senior police official also confirmed the death toll, saying: "Some of the bodies were just in the forest and had not even been buried."

A major search continues near the coastal town of Malindi where dozens of bodies were exhumed over the weekend, sending shockwaves through the country as President William Ruto vowed to crack down on "unacceptable" religious movements.

A full-scale investigation has been launched into the Good News International Church and its leader, named in court documents as Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who preached that death by starvation delivered followers to God.

Police had previously named the suspect as Makenzie Nthenge.

It is believed some of his devotees could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola, which was raided by police earlier this month after a tip-off from a local non-profit group.

Since then, a number of people have been rescued and dozens of bodies unearthed in mass graves dug in shallow pits.

The toll had earlier stood at 58, according to police chief Japhet Koome who visited the site on Monday.

A 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland has been declared a crime scene as teams clad in overalls search for more burial sites and possible cult survivors.

Ruto, speaking in Kiambu County, said there was "no difference" between rogue pastors like Nthenge - who has been arrested and is awaiting trial - and terrorists.

"Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing."

"I have instructed the agencies responsible to take up the matter and to get to the root cause and to the bottom of the activities of... people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology."

As authorities try to uncover the true scale of what is being dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre", questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Nthenge attracting police attention six years earlier.

"The unfolding horror that is the Shakahola cult deaths should and must be a wake-up call to the nation, more particularly the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and our community policing program," Amason Jeffah Kingi, the speaker of the senate, said in a statement.

"How did such a heinous crime, organized and executed over a considerable period of time, escape the radar of our intelligence system?"

Nthenge was arrested in 2017 on charges of "radicalization" after urging families not to send their children to school, saying education was not recognized by the Bible.

He 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.

Another 14 people are also in custody over the Shakahola deaths, according to Koome. The case is due to be heard on May 2.

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

The case has prompted the government to flag the need for tighter control of fringe denominations in a country with a history of self-declared pastors and movements that become involved in crime.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki, who has announced he would visit the site on Tuesday, described the case as "the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship."

But efforts to regulate religion in the majority-Christian country have been fiercely opposed in the past as attempts to undermine constitutional guarantees for the division of church and state.