Up in smoke or into thin air? Uganda

KAMPALA, March 16 (AFP) - A year after more than 700 Ugandans died at the hands of a doomsday cult, authorities remain uncertain whether the group's leaders were among those who perished in the flames or have simply disappeared.

"We haven't picked up much more on the authors of these acts or about their whereabouts," Internal Security Organisation chief Brigadier Ivan Koreta told AFP about the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

On March 17, 2000, about 300 members of this group, including many women and children, were killed in a blaze in a Kanungu, western Uganda church whose doors and windows had been nailed shut.

Cult members had reportedly been persuaded that they were going into the 'Ark' to join the Virgin Mary in heaven.

In the following weeks a further 395 bodies were found buried in mass graves in the compounds of three buildings owned by the cult across southwest Uganda - and also in a suburb of the capital, Kampala.

But mystery still surrounds the whereabouts of the cult's top leadership.

"Our search most likely seems to point to them having gone up in flames as well... The trail is getting a bit cold now but we keep on trying to learn as much as we can," added Koreta.

Some of the mass graves were in gardens, others under concreted-over floors inside houses. Most of the dead were naked.

Police said at the time that they believed that the three principle cult leaders -- former bar girl Credonia Mwerinde, Joseph Kibwetere and their principle apostle Dominic Kataribaabo -- had died along with their followers.

One of the corpses, at the rear of the Kanungu church, was a large man, a dog-collar fused into his neck by the heat, lying by the back door which had been nailed shut.

He was widely believed to be Kataribaabo.

Within hours of the blaze, reports began to trickle in of Credonia being seen driving away from Kanungu in a pick-up truck.

Police issued arrest warrants for six cult leaders through Interpol, and these remain active.

"There were not really any leads," police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi told AFP.

"We keep on getting information and we would check and then we find nothing. Last year we got information that Katirabaabo was in Nairobi. We sent our people and couldn't get him.

"Then they said Kibwetere had been seen in Kisumu in Kenya. We despatched our police but we were chasing air," Mygenyi added.

The proximity of Kanungu to the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo has fuelled continuing rumours of the cult leaders' successful flight.

The killings shocked and baffled the world. One of the hardest things to understand was how the perpetrators hid their acts from neighbours.

Several of the houses where the bodies were found were built right in the middle of villages, and in the case of Father Kataribaabo, who had 155 bodies buried in his garden and house, was positioned on a ledge overlooking a local school.

The Kampala cult house, which has since been refurbished and rented, was overlooked by other homes.

"Please, this is a private property now. Every day we receive a lot of people saying they just want to peep inside and go away. We are tired of this," the owner told the State Owned New Vision newspaper.

Police still do not know exactly how the killings took place, although they are clearer about the methods used.

"We know that in the church the people died from an explosion caused by lit petrol, not by bombs as earlier alleged. These people had put so many lit containers of petrol around the church," Mugenyi told AFP.

Pathology reports revealed that those who were found buried in the cult buildings had first been poisoned by eating contaminated food.

"Those who took time to die were strangled, but they had already been weakened by the poison in the food," Mugenyi said.

Police have also now established that those found in mass graves were killed four to six weeks before the Kanungu blaze, ending speculation that they were murdered at the turn of the millennium when a prophecy that the world would end failed to come true.

One year on little has been discovered about the motives behind the killings.

Theories range from greed: cult members sold off their belongings at give-away prices before they died; to simple post-millennial madness.

Investigations have been hampered by the government's apparent disinterest.

The severely under-funded police admitted at the time that they lacked the means to handle the inquiry, while a government commission into the massacres never got off the ground for want of finance.