The death toll from a suspected Kenyan starvation cult climbed to 90 on Tuesday, including many children, as police said investigators were pausing the search for bodies because the morgues were full.
The discovery of mass graves in Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi has 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.
There are fears more corpses could be found as search teams unearthed 17 bodies on Tuesday, with investigators saying children made up the majority of victims of what has been dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre".
Kenya's government has vowed to crack down on fringe religious outfits in the largely Christian country.
"We don't know how many more graves, how many more bodies, we are likely to discover," Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters, adding the crimes were serious enough to warrant terrorism charges against Nthenge.
"Those who urged others to fast and die were eating and drinking and they were purporting that they were preparing them to meet their creator."
The majority 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.
"The majority of the bodies exhumed are children," a forensic investigator told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Kenyan police have spent days scouring the Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi after receiving a tip-off about a cult led by Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who urged his followers to starve to death in order to find God.
The 17 bodies recovered on Tuesday included five that were found in one grave as emergency workers clad in white jumpsuits exhumed their remains from shallow graves and also found two emaciated women, according to the AFP journalist. The survivors were rushed to hospital.
The grim discovery has sent shockwaves through the country, prompting the country’s President William Ruto to pledge a crackdown on ‘unacceptable’ religious movements.
As the fatalities mounted, authorities at the state-run Malindi Sub-County Hospital warned Tuesday that the morgue was running out of space to store the bodies and already operating well over capacity.
"The hospital mortuary has a capacity of 40 bodies," said the hospital's administrator Said Ali, adding that officials had reached out to the Kenya Red Cross for refrigerated containers.
It is believed that some followers of the Good News International Church could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola and at risk of death if not quickly found.
Hussein Khalid, executive director of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police, urged the authorities to send more rescuers to scour the 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland for survivors.
Possibility of more deaths
"Each day that passes by there is very high possibility that more are dying," he told AFP.
"The horror that we have seen over the last four days is traumatising. Nothing prepares you for shallow mass graves of children."
Investigators told AFP they found bodies squeezed into shallow pits — with up to six people inside one grave — while others were simply left outside on the ground.
Kenya’s Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome on Monday told reporters that 29 people had been rescued and taken to hospital.
The country’s Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki has announced plans to visit the site on Tuesday, while Ruto has vowed to act against rogue pastors like Nthenge who want to use religion to advance ‘weird, unacceptable ideology’ and comparing them to terrorists.
As the Kenyan 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 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.
According to Kenya’s local media, Nthenge was arrested again last month after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.
He was released on bail of Ksh100,000 ($700) before surrendering to police following the Shakahola raid.
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 in Malindi, out of which two were reunited with their families.
The case has prompted calls for tighter control of fringe denominations in a country with a troubling history of self-declared pastors and cults that have dabbled in criminality.