NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenyan police killed more than 20 suspected members of an outlawed religious sect accused in a string of beheadings and the deaths of two police officers this week, authorities said Tuesday.
The shootings of the suspected members of the Mungiki, a sect inspired by a 1950s uprising against British rule, happened overnight into Tuesday in response to the officers' deaths in the Mathare slum Monday, police said.
"The police mounted an operation to crack down on those who were behind the killing," Eric Kiraithe, a police spokesman, told The Associated Press. More than 100 people then tried to obstruct the operation and a shootout broke out, he said.
Mungiki members are suspected in the deaths of at least 14 people in the past three months — including six found mutilated or beheaded in May, authorities said. The group is also accused of extorting money from minibus drivers who provide the main form of public transport in Kenya.
The violence has raised fears that Mungiki members are out to disrupt the elections in December, when President Mwai Kibaki will seek a second term. Police say they found leaflets allegedly circulated by the group calling on Kenyan youth to join up and prepare for an uprising against the government.
On Friday, President Mwai Kibaki said criminals behind the recent wave of violence act as if they have a right to kill.
"No one has such a right ... we will get you," Kibaki said.
Clashes have broken out every election year since 1992, and this year has been no different. Besides the Mungiki violence, land disputes in the Mount Elgon area, 320 miles northwest of Nairobi, have killed more than 140 people and forced tens of thousands from their homes.
Mungiki is believed to have thousands of adherents, all drawn from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe. The group, whose name means "multitude" in the Kikuyu language, was inspired by the bloody Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s against British colonial rule. In recent years, it has been linked to extortion, murder and political violence.
Members traditionally wear dreadlocks, inspired by the Mau Mau who wore them as a symbol of anti-colonialism and their determination not to conform to Western norms. In recent years, however, many Mungiki have shaved their heads, believing dreadlocks are too conspicuous.
Sect members pray facing Mount Kenya, which the Kikuyu believe to be the home of their supreme deity. The group also encourages female genital mutilation and using tobacco snuff.
Last week, government spokesman Alfred Mutua said that police have arrested 2,464 suspected Mungiki followers in recent months.
Mungiki was outlawed in 2002 after at least 20 people were killed in fighting between the Mungiki and another gang called the Taliban, whose members are drawn from the Luo tribe of western Kenya.