Malindi, Kenya: The number of victims linked to a suspected starvation cult in Kenya climbed to 98 on Wednesday as weeping relatives anxiously awaited news of loved ones after investigators unearthed mass graves last week.
The discovery of dozens of bodies buried in Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi 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.
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.
"We had a lot of challenges today with the rain but in the end we had eight bodies taken out," a police source told AFP, bringing the total to 98. "We will continue the exercise" Thursday, they added.
At the state-run Malindi Sub-County Hospital, where the morgue is already stretched well beyond capacity with dozens of bodies, families were desperate to know if their loved ones had been found.
Teenager Issa Ali was taken to Shakahola in 2020 by his mother and told AFP he had been beaten by Nthenge when he tried to leave, until his father rescued him.
"The last time I saw my mum was in February," the soft-spoken 16-year-old said.
"She was so weak the last time I saw her."
Onyancha said Wednesday that 39 people had been found alive so far in the 325-hectare (800-acre) bush around Shakahola, while 22 people have been arrested.
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 are talking about people mostly from Kenya, but also from Tanzania and Nigeria. Some have been missing for years."
More bodies feared
"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.
Most 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.
Hussein Khalid, executive director of the rights group Haki Africa, which tipped off the police about Nthenge's activities, told AFP the pastor's 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'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.