Uganda Death Toll Surpasses Jonestown

Reuters, March 31, 2000

KAMPALA, Uganda -- The death toll of a doomsday cult in the hills of southwestern Uganda surpassed that of the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana on Friday when police revised the count sharply upward, to 924. The search had yet to be declared over, though it was unclear Friday where police would go next.

The count rose after police re-estimated the toll in the March 17 church fire that started what would be an all-too-productive search for dead in connection with the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

Authorities initially reported at least 330 charred bodies inside the ruins of a makeshift church in the sect's compound of Kanunga. Friday, they said 530 people perished in what was believed to have been a gasoline-fueled inferno in the sealed church.

Subsequent searches of three sect compounds in hill villages unearthed mass graves yielding victims apparently killed after what had been the cult's Dec. 31 deadline for the world to end. Some of the victims appeared to have been knifed or strangled; hundreds were children.

The toll in what would be one of the worst mass murders in modern history passes that the November 1978 Peoples Temple tragedy. The Jonestown mass suicide and killings claimed 913 lives in the jungles of Guyana, including those of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, journalists and a handful of defectors shot to death as they tried to board a flight out of the jungle. Ugandan police are pursuing international arrest warrants for Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and three other suspected cult leaders. It's not clear if any or all escaped the mass graves and the inferno that followed.

The sect drew largely on disaffected Roman Catholics, leading many to give up their land to take up a strict doctrine of fasting, silence and prayer. Stanley Kenyatta, a member of Uganda parliament for the Rukangiri district in the area of the killings, said Friday he had been told the sect had branches in Tanzania and Rwanda as well, with plans to move into Kenya. Roman Catholic Church officials in Kenya said they knew of no such plans.

There was no immediate confirmation or denial from the other two countries.

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