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Kenya unearths more bodies in search for death cult followers

FILE PHOTO: Kenya police exhume remains of suspected followers of a Christian cult from shallow graves in Kilifi

SHAKAHOLA FOREST, Kenya (Reuters) -Kenyan investigators unearthed 29 more bodies on Friday in a continuing search for victims of a doomsday cult in the country's southeast.

The death toll now stands at 179. Authorities this week have searched for remains in shallow graves scattered throughout the Shakahola forest and for any survivors as hundreds of people are still reported missing.

On Wednesday, a Kenyan court denied bail to Paul Mackenzie, leader of the Good News International Church, who has been accused of ordering his followers to starve their children and themselves to death so they could go to heaven before the end of the world.

Regional official Rhoda Onyancha said the search had widened to other parts of the forest on Friday. The exhumations will resume on Saturday.

Among the corpses exhumed on Friday, 12 were of children, a grave digger at the site of exhumations, who requested not to be named, told Reuters.

Mackenzie has not yet been required to enter a plea. His lawyer has said he was cooperating with the police in their investigation.

Earlier this year, Mackenzie was arrested and then released on bail on suspicion of the murder of two children by starvation and suffocation.

He returned to Shakahola forest after he was freed and brought forward his predicted doomsday from August to April 15, relatives of his adherents say, leading to criticism from some lawmakers that security services missed opportunities to prevent the mass deaths.

Kenya's Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua said on Friday the discovery of the starvation cult was about individuals and not the institution of the church and vowed to protect it against those who might weaponise the cult disaster.

"They would want to use that small issue to give the Church of Christ a bad name," he said in a video clip posted online by Citizen TV Kenya.

(Reporting by Joseph Akwiri, additional reporting by Duncan Miriri; Writing by Bhargav Acharya; Editing by William Maclean)