120 members of doomsday sect killed in Uganda blaze, police say

CNN News, March 18, 2000

KANUNGU, Uganda (CNN) -- At least 120 followers of a religious sect that believed the world was coming to an end burned to death Friday in a fire at their church, police said Saturday.

Initial reports differed as to whether the sect members had committed mass suicide or were lured to their deaths by their leader. Police said the death toll could go as high as 230, the Reuters news agency reported. Investigators said it was difficult to count the bodies, which were burned beyond recognition.

The Associated Press reported that police said the fire happened in Kanungu, a small trading center about 217 miles southwest of Uganda's capital, Kampala.

"There were families inside, even small children," Jonathan Turyareeda, a local police officer, told Reuters.

Reuters quoted police as saying members of the sect set themselves on fire in a ritual mass suicide after several hours of chanting and singing. Pius Muteekana Katunzi, an editor with the Sunday Monitor newspaper in Kampala, told CNN that some local reports said members of the sect marched to the church, locked themselves inside and then set themselves ablaze. But a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP that it appeared that the sect leader lured his unwitting followers inside and then set the fire.

"Preliminary reports indicate that the leader of this sect lured the people inside the church and set it on fire," the officer said.

A police spokesman told AP the sect was known to have about 240 members and was called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

The sect believed the world will end in the year 2000, he said. Katunzi reported that last year members of the sect burned their property and sold their belongings. A police spokesman gave a similar account to Reuters.

"Prior to this incident their leader told believers to sell off their possessions and prepare to go to heaven," the police spokesman said.

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