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Sect Spreads Fear in Kenya

Fear is spreading in cities and villages throughout Kenya, following a series of horrific murders committed by the followers of a banned sect called the Mungiki. With presidential elections scheduled for December, local analysts and human-rights activists suspect that some of the violence may be politically driven. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Mungiki sect members are believed to have been involved in the killings of at least 16 people in Kenya in the past three months.

The latest violence occurred Sunday in a poor neighborhood in the northeastern part of Nairobi. A shootout between alleged Mungiki members and the police left six people dead, including two police officers, a 10-year-old boy, and an elderly man.

A week before that, Mungiki members are believed to have carried out the brutal murders of six villagers who had been accused by the sect of being police informants in central Kenya. The villagers were said to be tortured before they were hacked to death and their bodies dismembered.

Since the Mungiki's emergence as a secret organization in the late 1980s, little is known about the sect other than it was inspired by the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s against British colonial rule and draws all of its adherents from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe.

The Mungiki, which means "multitude" in the Kikuyu language, evolved largely into a criminal gang - extorting, robbing, kidnapping, and murdering victims, particularly in city slums. The sect was banned in 2002 after sect members stabbed and clubbed to death more than 20 people in a Nairobi slum.

A sociology professor at the University of Nairobi, Ken Ouko, says the Mungiki has been most active during election years, which suggests that the group may have a political agenda as well.

"The last time we saw them get hyper-active like this was in 2002, when we had elections," he said. "And now in 2007, they have become newsworthy and prominent again. The Mungiki seems to be an organization that thrives on political excitement. So, you can easily say that they are making a political statement."

What is still not clear is the reason behind the Mungiki violence before elections.

Many Kenyans believe some politicians hire the Mungiki to silence critics and intimidate voters. Others speculate the Mungiki use excessive violence to show the frustration and anger in a country, where more than 60 percent of the population live in poverty.

Kenya Human Rights Commission member Lawrence Mute says he fears the sect could become more organized and powerful, unless something can be done to expose the group and their activities.

"We need clear evidence, one way or another, on who are these people, who are backing them up," he said. "Definitely, we have not responded to this phenomenon the way we should have responded as a country."

The government of Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, has vowed to wipe out the Mungiki, but the sect is showing little fear of the promised security crackdown.