RUGAZI, Uganda (AP) - Prisoners under armed guard today uncovered 74 bodies from a mass grave hidden at the edge of a sugarcane field, where authorities suspect more members of a doomsday Christian sect remain buried. Some of the bodies showed signs of stab wounds while some others had pieces of cloth wrapped tightly around their throats. They appeared to have been dead about a month, a local doctor examining them said. The discovery in Rugazi came as authorities continued investigating the deaths of at least 490 other members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God elsewhere in the lush mountains of southwestern Uganda. The prisoners, with their shirts off and their pants rolled up, wrapped their noses in gauze and shared cigarettes to ward off the stench of rotting bodies, which drifted for hundreds of yards.
The eight prisoners, released for the day from a local jail, quickly unearthed the decomposed remains of 74 people, including 28 children - some of them babies - and were continuing to dig this afternoon. Bodies buried together, or without coffins, are highly unusual in Africa, where funeral rites are deeply important.
As the twisted, rotting bodies were hoisted from the reddish brown earth, there were no screams of recognition from villagers who pressed against the crude wood fence at the edge of the cane field. The corpses brought up - sect members who came here to attend weeklong or weekend seminars on righteous living and the end of the world - were strangers from elsewhere in Uganda.
The bodies, some of them dismembered and one visibly pregnant, were laid down and examined for little more than a minute by the local doctor, who dictated notes to a health worker standing by. Prisoners then picked up the bodies and flung them into a nearby trench for reburial. The cursory examinations came as the Ugandan government announced it had set up a team of investigators to examine the contents of the grave. The team, which includes chemists, a pathologist and forensic experts, was gathering in Kampala, Uganda's capital, and would be heading into the interior in the next day or so, Eric Naigambi, a police spokesman, said by telephone from Kampala.
After visiting Rugazi, the team was to go to the village of Buhunga, where they will re-exhume 153 bodies of sect members that were found in two mass graves there, quickly examined by a local doctor, and reburied hours later. Terenzi Kingera, a regional officer with Uganda's criminal investigation division, said the doctor had been ``overwhelmed'' by the job, so the corpses needed to be examined again. With the bodies already being reburied in Rugazi, it was unclear how the investigators would proceed once they reached the village. Police inspector Chris Tindigarukayo, who supervised the exhumation, said the bodies had to be immediately reburied to avoid spreading disease The overall investigation has been plagued by logistical problems since it began. The Ugandan police are ill-trained and desperately ill-funded, often without vehicles or fuel to power them.
``The flow of funds from the Ministry of Finance has always been poor,'' Paul Bachengana, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said from Kampala.
A Ugandan legislator, meanwhile, speculated that sect leaders orchestrated the deaths of their followers and then fled.
Senior Ugandan officials have quoted witnesses as saying the sect's two top leaders - Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, and Joseph Kibweteere, 68 - may have left the village of Kanungu on March 17, the same day a fire in a makeshift sect church there killed 330 members. Those reports are unconfirmed. The deaths in Kanungu - which set off the investigation - were initially viewed as a mass suicide. However, officials, police and villagers have speculated that the two leaders fled as the sect grew increasingly divided when the world did not end Dec. 31 as was predicted, and that members may have wanted back their belongings, which they had surrendered on joining the sect. Jim Muhezi, a member of parliament and a onetime head of Uganda's internal security agency, theorized Saturday that sect leaders cracked down viciously on the defiant, poisoning some, and urging the mass suicide to curb further defections.
Days after the Kanungu fire, the 153 bodies were found in Buhunga. Police discovered the Rugazi grave Friday, when they came to inspect the compound that until recently belonged to Dominic Kataribabo, a defrocked priest and a sect leader. Kataribabo is believed to have died in the Kanungu fire. Kanungu, Buhunga and Rugazi are all in the mountains of southwestern Uganda, near the border with Rwanda and Congo and are no more than 50 miles apart. The sect had up to 1,000 members, and authorities here fear most may have become victims. Government officials are treating Kibweteere as a fugitive and all the deaths as murder.