Kenya police slay three in highway clash with killer sect

Nairobi, Kenya - Kenyan police killed three members of a sect blamed for a string of beheadings in a roadside clash, bringing the death toll to 37 after a Nairobi slum crackdown, officials said Friday.

Heavily-armed Kenyan police on Thursday swept through the city's slums and slayed at least a dozen suspected members of the shady Mungiki sect, on the third day of a bloody crackdown in the Mathare slum.

The politically-linked Mungiki -- banned in 2002 following deadly slum violence -- is notorious for criminal activities including extortion, murder and harassment of women.

Police gunned down three suspected sect members near Muranga town, around 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of the capital late Thursday, police spokesman Eric Kiraithe told AFP.

"We intercepted them on the road at about 11.00 pm and when they were challenged to stop, they refused and fired at police, but we responded and killed three," Kiraithe said.

"One of our officers was wounded, but we recovered a revolver, two pistols and a machete."

The death toll rose to 37 suspected sect members, and hundreds arrested, as the police hunt -- sparked by the killing of two police officers on Monday night -- entered its fourth day, with patrols spreading from the capital's slums to the Rift Valley region, according to police.

"This crackdown will go on until all the criminal activities end, and things get back to normal and nobody is going to be spared," Kiraithe said.

"We have acted in a restrained manner and we are operating within the law. Those who are killed are either armed or threaten police," he added, after police officers destroyed houses and beat people during Thursday's slum raid.

A local human rights group, Independent Medico-Legal Unit, condemned "the cruel, inhuman and degrading manner" of the police crackdown, according to The Standard newpaper on Friday.

Hundreds of slum dwellers filed out of the sprawling Mathare slum, where the Mungiki holds sway, on Friday, vowing never to return, as police in civilian gear patrolled the area in a scaled-down search operation.

Residents were seen carrying mattresses, furniture, and sacks of clothing, leaving parts of the slum a ghost area.

"I can't stay here because we do not know when police will hit again. What we experienced yesterday (Thursday) was too brutal for us to stay here," said local James Njoroge, carrying a mattress and a table.

"Some of us are not even Mungiki, but we were beaten as if we had information on the group," said Jane Nyambura, injured on the foot by a police truncheon.

Once a pseudo-religious group of dreadlocked youths who embraced traditional rituals such as female circumcision, the Mungiki sect, which holds sway in several slums, has fractured into a violent gang with political connections.

Kenyan authorities are currently probing four former members of parliament accused of links to the Mungiki, which has been blamed for the deaths of at least 30 people since March, including 11 gruesome beheadings.

Police have arrested nearly 3,000 suspected Mungiki members this year in the Central and Nairobi provinces, according to the government.