LAGOS, Nigeria -- Police in eastern Nigeria discovered body parts, skulls, and more than 50 corpses, some partly mummified, in shrines where a secretive cult was believed to have carried out ritual killings, officers said yesterday. Some victims may have died after swallowing poison.
Two religious leaders and 28 others have been arrested in connection with the cult, which was feared and obeyed by people living near wooded areas where the 20 shrines were situated, police said.
Investigators are searching near the town of Okija for more possible remains, police spokesman Kolapo Shofoluwe said.
All of the dead found so far were adults, and at least one body and four skulls appeared to be from those killed recently, he said. Some of the bodies were in coffins, and some were headless.
Police believed some of the victims -- businessmen, civil servants, and others -- were poisoned. The cult, known as Alusi Okija, is believed to practice a ritual in which people involved in disputes, often over business deals, are urged to settle them by drinking a potion they are told will kill only the guilty, police said.
The ceremonial chief priest suspected of preparing potions for victims was not arrested because of his advanced age. "He's an old man. We don't want him to die in police custody," state police commissioner Felix Ogbaudu said.
A photo taken by a local photojournalist showed more than a dozen suspects, surrounded by police, sitting huddled around a coffin containing a body and with several skulls nearby.
Alusi Okija -- which takes its name from a local oracle god and the town -- is an ancient sect of the area's ethnic Ibo people. Few details about the cult were available yesterday, but police said the ritual of swallowing poisons to test guilt is believed to have been practiced for "over 100 years."
The practice was originally intended to deter crime, but it has become a way for priests and their collaborators to kill and defraud people, Ogbaudu said.
The police spokesman, Shofoluwe, described a typical scenario in which one man complains to the chief priests that another man has cheated him in business. Both parties are called to a shrine to resolve the dispute. "The entire region has so much respect and fear for such calls that they usually go there to defend it," he said.
After the poisoning ritual, the community hands the body, money, and property of the deceased to the priests, the spokesman said.