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The BBC's Martin Dawes in Kanungu
"The sect drew heavily on Roman Catholicism"
 real 28k

John Nagenda, Ugandan government spokesman
"A terrible tragedy of gullible human beings"
 real 28k

Monday, 20 March, 2000, 02:12 GMT
Uganda cult suicide toll rises
Burned out church
The remains of the church where hundreds died
Horrified relatives have been trying to identify the charred remains of hundreds of people who burned to death in an apparent mass suicide in Uganda.


They were all inside and the doors were closed and the windows nailed down from the outside

Stephen Mugenyi, local defence group
Police officials say it is clear the number of victims could be higher than previously thought.

A tangle of charred bodies remained in the makeshift church on Sunday, 48 hours after members of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God cult church set themselves ablaze.

List of cult members

Initial reports said around 235 men, women and children died in the small trading centre of Kanungu, about 320km (200 miles), southwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

This figure was based on the number of people who had registered as members of the movement.


Some of our leaders talk directly to God. Any minute from now, when the end comes, every believer who will be at an as yet undisclosed spot will be saved

Emmanuel Twinomujuni, cult member
But correspondents say police have discovered a full list of the cult's members and, although they are not revealing the figure, say it could be much more than previously thought.

Some reports have put the death toll at 470.

"All indications are that we have a mass suicide," Inspector General John Kisembo said.

"We know that the leaders of the church must have planned it."

No attempt has been made to remove the corpses and identification of the bodies will be almost impossible.

Forensic experts have spent the day sifting through the blackened remains but it is unlikely an exact death toll will ever be reached since some of the bodies were reduced to ashes.

Screaming

One local farmer said he heard what sounded like an explosion, then saw black smoke billowing from the makeshift church on top of the hill where cult members had been living for a number of years.

Religious icons
Religious icons were found around the movement's compound
He said he and his neighbours heard screaming coming from the church, in the forested area near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A member of the local defence force, Corporal Stephen Mojuni, arrived at the church while it was still ablaze.

He said rescuers were unable to save any of the cult's members because the wooden shutters and doors had been hammered shut with nails.

On Sunday, a steady stream of Ugandans trekked along the muddy path to the church in an attempt to identify the remains of relatives and friends.

Witnesses said there were signs that the cult was getting ready for a big event in the days leading up to the fire.

Catholic roots

One report said the group's leader, Joseph Kibweteere, told his followers to sell their possessions and prepare to go to heaven.

Food was destroyed
Food found at the site was destroyed
Local residents said the cult members had a party on Wednesday at which they consumed 70 crates of soft drinks and three bulls.

The BBC's correspondent at the scene, Martin Dawes, says while one of the bodies appeared to have the remains of a clergyman's collar around the neck, it was not known whether Mr Kibweteere died with his followers.

There have also been reports that other leaders of the cult included two former Roman Catholic priests.

Correspondents say evidence of its Roman Catholic roots lay scattered around the cult's compound.

Three statues of Jesus stood in the leader's abandoned offices, while a large crucifix had been laid carefully on green cloth draped across a chair.

'End of the world'

The community was involved in farming but villagers later destroyed its food supply, fearing that it might be poisoned.


It has been reported the movement had been preparing for the end of the world this year.

Last year, one of cult's members, Emmanuel Twinomujuni, told the state-owned New Vision newspaper that "there was no time to waste".

"Some of our leaders talk directly to God," he said.

"Any minute from now, when the end comes, every believer who will be at an as yet undisclosed spot will be saved."

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See also:

20 Mar 00 | Africa
Analysis: Why East Africa?
18 Mar 00 | Africa
When devotion means death
20 Sep 99 | Africa
Police swoop on Ugandan cult
23 Nov 99 | Africa
Ugandan millennium cult smashed
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Cult or religion: What's the difference?
05 Jan 99 | World
Cults: Worry ye not
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