LAGOS, Nigeria – Police in eastern Nigeria (search) discovered skulls and corpses of more than 50 people in shrines where a secretive cult was believed to have carried out traditional ritual killings, a police spokesman said Thursday.
Two religious leaders and 28 others were arrested in connection with the Wednesday discovery of bleached skulls, fresh corpses and others partly mummified at 20 shrines in forests near the town of Okija, police spokesman Kolapo Shofoluwe told Associated Press.
The town is in the eastern state of Anambra (search).
Police believed some of the victims — businessmen, civil servants and others — may have been poisoned as part of a shadowy ritual justice system, Shofoluwe added.
The group is believed to practice a ritual in which parties to a personal dispute — often over business deals — are made to drink a potion that they are told will kill only the guilty party.
Police discovered "well over 50 bodies" and were searching for more, the police spokesman said.
"We must go around the forest. As extensive as it is, it may take days," Shofoluwe said.
At least one body and four skulls appeared to be of recently killed victims, he said.
The ceremonial chief priest who prepared potions to be given to victims was not arrested because of his old age, Shofoluwe said.
Residents held the religious group, known locally as Alusi Okija (search), in "respect and fear," the police spokesman said.
Shofoluwe said the basic ritual of swallowing poisons to test guilt is believed to have been practiced for "over 100 years."
"Mr. A goes to the shrine to report to the chief priests that Mr. B has done wrong to him by way of cheating him in a joint business," said Shofoluwe, adding the priests then typically call both parties together to resolve the dispute.
"The entire region has so much respect and fear for such calls or summons that they usually go there to defend it."
The body, money and property of the deceased are believed to be given to the priests by community members.