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Kenya Starvation Cult Victims Now Top 300

FILE: Paul Nthenge Makenzie, who was arrested on suspicion of telling his followers to fast to death in order to meet Jesus, accompanied by some of his followers, appears at a court in Malindi, Kenya on Monday, April 17, 2023.

NAIROBI — The death toll in an investigation linked to a Kenyan cult that practised starvation to "meet Jesus Christ" has surpassed 300 after 19 new bodies were found Tuesday, a senior official said.

"The death toll has now risen to 303 after the 19 bodies were exhumed," Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha said.

Police believe most of the bodies found in a forest near the Indian Ocean town of Malindi belong to followers of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a taxi driver-turned-preacher who has been in police custody since April 14.

He is due to face charges of "terrorism" in the case which has rocked the east African nation.

The 50-year-old founder of the Good News International Church turned himself in on April 14 after police acting on a tip-off first entered Shakahola forest.

While starvation appears to be the main cause of death, some of the victims - including children - were strangled, beaten or suffocated, according to chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor.

Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie, a father of seven, managed to evade law enforcement despite a history of extremism and previous legal cases.

The horrific saga has stunned Kenyans and led President William Ruto to set up a commission of inquiry into the deaths and a task force to review regulations governing religious bodies.

Another pastor accused of links to Mackenzie and to the bodies found in the forest was released on bail at a court hearing.

Ezekiel Odero, a high-profile and wealthy televangelist, is being investigated on a raft of charges including murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalization, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.