Up to 230 Dead in Apparent Mass Suicide in Uganda

From Wire Reports
K A M P A L A, Uganda, March 18 -- At least 235 followers of a doomsday cult burned to death in a church fire in a remote part of southwestern Uganda, authorities said today.

Followers of the obscure "Ten Commandments of God" sect gathered in a church 200 miles southwest of the capital Kampala on Friday, a police spokesman told Reuters.

They apparently set themselves on fire after several hours of chanting and singing.

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

Another police officer, who spoke to The Associated Press on conditions of anonymity, said preliminary reports indicated Kibweteere lured his followers inside the church and then set it ablaze.

Police put the death toll between 100 and 230, but said they were having difficulty counting the bodies, many of which were burned beyond recognition.

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

It was unclear whether sect leader Joseph Kibweteere died in the fire. He had predicted the world would end Dec. 31 but changed it to Dec. 31, 2000, after nothing happened, said the independent newspaper The Monitor in its Sunday edition.

Police spokesman Asuman Mugenyi said an unspecified number of police officers may have been killed in the fire, which he said took place Thursday. Other police said the church burned on Friday.

Witnesses told the Monitor they smelled gasoline and there was an explosion that set the church on fire.

Local leaders said members of the sect, the Movement for the Restoration of Ten Commandments of God, slaughtered their cattle and feasted for a week, drinking a large supply of soft drinks and singing religious songs, according to the Monitor.

Another Cult Disbanded

If the cult members voluntary took their lives, the incident would be the world's second-biggest ritual mass suicide.

Only a 1978 mass suicide had more victims. Then, a paranoid U.S. pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by giving them a cyanide-laced fruit drink.

Cult members who refused to swallow the liquid were shot. Jones had carved a sign over his altar at Jonestown, reading "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."

In recent years there have been several smaller group suicides in Europe and North America, three of them involving the Solar Temple, an international sect that believes death by ritual suicide leads to rebirth.

Last September, Ugandan police disbanded another Doomsday cult, the 1,000-member "World Message Last Warning" sect.

The cult's leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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