THE sickly stench of rotting flesh is still overpowering at the cult compound in the village of Rugazi where Ugandan authorities have exhumed nearly 150 bodies, most of them women and children.
The site is one of five mass graves identified since a church inferno two weeks ago claimed the lives of 530 followers of an apocalyptic sect. The smell is so bad that many of the Ugandan prisoners drafted in to clear the graves were yesterday refusing to continue with their grisly task.
As Ugandan police called a temporary halt to the search after uncovering yet another grave, the death toll moved steadily closer to 1,000. It is expected to continue rising after the revelation yesterday by a former sect member that relatives who came searching for missing loved ones were themselves killed with cups of poisoned tea.
A further 4,000 members of the sect are still thought to be missing; there were suggestions yesterday that many of the victims may have come from neighbouring countries.
The death toll from the murders, which police believe were committed over the past three months, now stands at 924. The new figure takes the saga past the number of people who died in the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide. The systematic disposal of cult members' relatives appears to have been carried out at most of the compounds run by the millennial Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. According to a former sect member, it was part of an elaborate plot to prevent members being rescued and revealing the "diabolical deeds" taking place inside the sect. "If a person came to the camp looking for his or her relatives, the cult leaders welcomed them, gave them a seat in the visitor's room and a cup of tea," said the former cult member, who defected before fire swept through the movement's church in Kanungu two weeks ago. "The tea was poisoned. Later, he or she was taken to the cult offices when helpless and thrown into a pit."
This startling testimony came as Ugandan police, overwhelmed by the enormity of their task, said they would not exhume any more bodies until they had reinforced their team with forensic experts. They appealed for international help in their investigations, which have been hampered by a lack of equipment, poor planning and confusion.
Eric Naigambi, a Ugandan police spokesman, said: "From now on, we are going to secure sites and in future, when our logistics are in place, we will get proper clothes and makes sure a pathologist is at hand and materials available.
"This is because it has looked like we have just been compiling statistics and then reburying in the same manner as the cult leaders." The discovery of a fifth mass grave, in Kyata, near the southwestern town of Fort Portal, came as police made another arrest, their second since the Kanungu church fire two weeks ago. Joseph Ssettuba Assemande, otherwise known as "The Bishop", was arrested in the southwestern district of Rakai. It was not immediately clear whether he had an active role in the sect. The Ugandan authorities are struggling to understand how and why so many people met their deaths at the hands of Joseph Kibwetere, the cult leader described by his estranged wife as "a loving father and husband". They are now convinced that the killings began in an attempt to prevent mass defections by people who had demanded their money and possessions back: they were required to surrender them on joining Mr Kibwetere's apocalyptic movement.
However, they are astonished that a handful of cult leaders could murder so many people without anyone suspecting foul play until six mutilated bodies were discovered at the Kanungu church's pit latrines days later. It now seems that explosives, petrol and acid were placed in the church to ensure that everyone inside was killed in the blaze as quickly as possible after consuming poisoned bread and wine at the altar. Since the Kanungu church blaze there have been almost daily discoveries of more bodies as police have embarked on the macabre search for the sect's victims. Since last Friday, nearly 400 bodies, most of them strangled and the vast majority women and children, have been pulled out of five mass graves.
It has also emerged that the millennial cult leaders spent thousands of pounds on radio advertisements seeking new converts in the run-up to the fire which consumed more than 500 of their followers on March 17.
The radio advertisements began in early December, announcing that the world would come to an end on December 31, 1999, and that anyone who wanted to go to heaven should join the cult before the arrival of Armageddon. When the end of the world failed to materialise, the advertisements continued until a week before the Kanungu church fire.
Police suspect that the cult leaders may have hired or trained people to carry out the murders in the final weeks leading up to the church inferno. "They must have had hired killers," George Kinyata, a local member of parliament said. "For a priest to kill this number of people he must have been wild or crazy."
Police said an unknown number of victims are believed to have come from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya, where Mr Kibwetere had recently opened new sect branches.
A nationwide manhunt is still underway for Mr Kibwetere and for Cledonia Mwerinde, a former prostitute and co-leader of the sect, both of whom are believed to have escaped before the Kanungu church fire.