RUSHOJWA, Uganda (AP) - Ugandan authorities pulled 80 bodies from the reddish earth at a fourth compound connected to a Christian doomsday sect today as investigators questioned a former local official about the cult.
Prisoners from a nearby jail exhumed the grave in this hilltop village in southwestern Uganda, where a neighbor said people would regularly "vanish." Some 724 bodies have been found so far in four cult compounds, making this one of the worst mass murders in recent history. A fifth property used by the cult has yet to be excavated.
The smell of rotting flesh hung thick over the compound as the bodies were removed, among them 33 women, 27 girls, 17 boys and three men. Police said they didn't expect to find any more victims at the site.
Kensi Ntuaydubale, who lives near the cluster of four simple buildings with tin roofs and almost nothing inside them, said that locals had long worried about what was happening there.
"Groups used to come from different areas and after some days they'd vanish," he said, adding that it was general knowledge within the village that "many people" had died. Others, however, thought people were dying of illnesses.
"People would die but no one would call their neighbors to help them," he said. Funeral rites are normally communal in Uganda and the dead are buried in family compounds with the help of neighbors.
Ntuaydubale said police had been called to the compound at least twice, but that after an investigation late last year they were left alone.
In an interview broadcast today from London, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused district and regional officials in general of suppressing intelligence reports on the activities of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
Authorities are pursuing the two main leaders of the movement - Cledonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibwetere, an excommunicated Roman Catholic. The pair had predicted that the world would end last Dec. 31. When that didn't happen, authorities believe, sect members demanded the return of the possessions they had surrendered to join the sect and were put down with brutal force.
The chapel at the cult's main compound in Kanungu was set on fire March 17 with cult members trapped inside by doors and windows that were nailed shut. Police counted 330 bodies, but believe there were many more victims.
Authorities initially called the fire a mass suicide. But within days, investigators discovered six strangled, mutilated corpses in a latrine on the compound, triggering a murder investigation.
Days after the Kanungu fire, 153 more bodies were found buried in a Buhunga village compound belonging to the sect.
Internal Affairs Minister Edward Rugumayo told The Associated Press that a former local official from Kanungu, Rev. Amooti Mutazindwa, had been detained and the he "has some useful information that will help police with their investigations."
Mutazindwa was transferred to a district in west-central Uganda more than a month ago.
The compound police searched today belonged to Joseph Nyamurinda, a sect member who disappeared with 17 family members three days before the church fire.
Nyamurinda and his family are all believed to have died in Kanungu, 20 miles southwest of Rushojwa, said Assuman Mugenyi, Uganda's chief police spokesman.
Ugandan police, who are not trained and ill-equipped for such crimes, have found bodies at two other compounds owned or abandoned by cult members. Officials believe most of the dead belonged to the cult - which had up to 1,000 members - though their identities remained unknown.
On Wednesday, authorities finished excavating a mass grave hidden in the house of Dominic Kataribabo, an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest and a leader of the sect who is believed to have died. Eighty-one bodies were pulled from the mass grave, found buried under a concrete floor.
Earlier this week, 74 mutilated and strangled bodies, many of them children, were unearthed from a mass grave in a small sugarcane field in Kataribabo's backyard.
Museveni, speaking on the British Broadcasting Corp. during a visit to London, said intelligence officers had filed reports on the Ten Commandments sect, but that regional officials "sat on" the reports.
He said he had ordered top government officials to begin an investigation into why the reports were suppressed.