NAIROBI, Kenya: Gunbattles erupted in a Nairobi slum Thursday, killing at least 10 people, as police conducted house-to-house searches for members of an outlawed sect accused of terrorizing Kenyans and leaving behind a string of beheaded corpses.
An Associated Press reporter saw 10 corpses in the Mathare shantytown, considered a stronghold for the Mungiki sect. Police sealed off the slum and rounded up more than 100 people, ordering them to kneel on the ground as gunshots whizzed by.
Paramilitary police have been swarming Mathare all week after two police officers were killed in a shooting blamed on the Mungiki. Authorities killed 22 people and arrested more than 100 Monday night and early Tuesday.
Mungiki was inspired by the 1950s Mau Mau uprising against British rule but has become a street gang linked to murder, political violence and extortion. The group is suspected in the deaths of at least 20 people in the past three months, including 12 found mutilated or beheaded since May.
The bloodshed has raised fears that Mungiki members are out to disrupt elections in December, when President Mwai Kibaki will seek a second term.
Leaflets allegedly circulated by the group call on Kenyan youth to join and prepare for an uprising against the government. The leaflet includes a threat that “If one youth is killed we shall kill 10 police.”
Mungiki claims to have thousands of adherents, all drawn from the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe. Members of the group, whose name means “multitude” in the Kikuyu language, 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.
Mungiki was outlawed in 2002 after at least 20 people were killed in fighting between it and another gang called the Taliban, whose members come from the Luo tribe of western Kenya.