A Kenyan televangelist was arrested on Thursday after reports of the “mass killing of his followers”, the interior minister said, as authorities investigated scores of other deaths linked to a religious cult from the same region.
As news of pastor Ezekiel Odero’s detention spread, officials said the death toll had now reached 103 in the separate cult investigation that has shocked the nation and prompted calls for a crackdown on religious fringe groups.
Odero, dressed in white robes and carrying a thick black book, did not respond to reporters’ questions as he was escorted into a police station by a uniformed officer. Reuters could not contact any lawyer representing him.
Officials had evacuated scores of people who had been “holed up” in Odero’s New Life Prayer Centre and Church in the small southeastern town of Mavueni on the Indian Ocean coast, minister Kithure Kindiki wrote on Twitter.
Odero was “being processed to face criminal charges related to mass killing of his followers,” Kindiki added, without going into details on how many people had died. He made no comment on whether the cases were linked.
Odero’s arrest was connected to “allegations of deaths that have been occurring at his premises and reported in various morgues or institutions,” regional official Rhoda Onyancha told reporters.
The town of Mavueni is about 66 km (40 miles) from the Shakahola forest where cult leader Paul Mackenzie is accused of ordering his followers to starve themselves to death so they would be the first to go to heaven ahead of what he predicted would be the end of the world on April 15.
Mackenzie has been in police custody since April 14 and has made no public comment about the charges.
Since Friday, investigators have unearthed the bodies of 95 members of his self-proclaimed Good News International Church from shallow graves in the forest, and a further eight were found alive and emaciated but later died.