FORT PORTAL, Uganda, April 1, 2000 (Reuters) - As Ugandan police searched on Saturday for more victims of a Christian sect that may have killed some thousand members, a local police official said three of its leaders were briefly detained in 1998.
The senior official, who refused to be identified, said the three cult leaders had been detained for promoting "poverty."
"They were telling people to sell their property and possessions. They looked to be poor and humble because they didn't carry any belongings. They only carried the Bible," he said.
He was speaking as one of several police teams involved in the investigation searched the home of John Katebalirwe, a prominent member of the cult at v Sweswe village, near Fort Portal, about 100 km (62 miles) west of the capital Kampala where the three leaders were detained two years ago.
The police teams have been helped in their search by prisoners working bare-foot and hired labourers. However on Saturday the Commissioner of Prisons, Joseph Etima, was quoted as saying the prisoners were being stood down until they could be provided with protective clothing.
The Ugandan government says evidence found so far suggests that failed politician Joseph Kibwetere's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments had murdered nearly a thousand people, many of them children.
The sect's leaders apparently began killing members, who had been urged to give their worldly goods to the cause, after they started asking for their money back when the world did not end last December 31 as predicted.
Around 500 people were found burned to death at the sect's headquarters in Kanungu, southwestern Uganda on March 17.
Since then police have discovered 389 bodies, mostly women and children, in mass graves at Rugazi, Rushojwa and Buhunga, all in the southwest, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
The cult found easy support in a poor country ravaged by AIDS and with a history of fanatical religious sects, the most famous being Alice Lakwena's Holy Spirit Movement which led hundreds of its followers to death believing magic oil would protect them against government bullets.
Police said on Friday they would stop digging for bodies until they have beefed up their investigative team, and appealed for international help to carry on the probe.
They said they would concentrate on checking suspected sites and guard them until they decide how to proceed.
The announcement followed the discovery of a fourth suspected mass grave in a cult member's house at Kanungu.
"We wanted to compare the queries with what they found in the registers at Kanungu. There have been several responses countrywide," Naigambi said.
"We think these people knew specifically where their relatives were going. It would give us an indication whether we have to search more or not."
The Ugandan government will hold an inter-denominational prayer service at Kanungu on Sunday which will be attended by Vice-President Speciosa Kazibwe.
Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet who claimed to talk directly to Jesus, has been described by associates as a violent man prone to seizures and was briefly detained in a mental institution for manic depression in 1998.
He is said to have been under the influence of Gredonia Mwerinda, a former prostitute who claimed she talked to the Virgin Mary.
They were assisted by "Father" Dominic Kataribabo, a former Catholic priest with a masters degree in theology and a reputation as a studious and religious man.