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Police officers stand near a cordon at the scene where police are exhuming bodies of victims of Christian cult that has led to death of dozens of followers, at a forest in Shakahola area, outskirts of Malindi town, Kenyan Coast, on April 25.Stringer/The Associated Press

The death toll at a ranch in coastal Kenya that is owned by a pastor who is accused of leading a religious cult and ordering his followers to starve themselves reached 90 on Tuesday, as the country’s interior minister announced an expanded operation at the site.

The new figure came after police exhumed 17 more bodies. The total number of those rescued while starving at the ranch now stands at 34.

The Kenya Red Cross Society’s latest figure on the number of missing is 213.

Pastor Paul Makenzi, who heads the Good News International Church, is accused of luring his followers to the ranch near the town of Malindi. He allegedly told them to fast to death in order to meet Jesus before burying them in shallow graves spread across his land. He was arrested after police raided the property earlier this month, and he remains in police custody.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said that the security team will “upscale search and rescue missions to save as many lives as possible.”

“The entire 800-acre (320-hectare) parcel of land that is part of the Shakahola ranch is hereby declared a disturbed area and an operation zone,” Kindiki said while visiting the area.

The minister said there would be a turning point on how the country handles threats caused by religious extremism and was looking into another suspected cult in the same Kilifi county.

“We have cast the net wider to another religious organization here in Kilifi. We have opened a formal inquiry on this religious group and we are getting crucial leads that perhaps what was being done by Makenzi is a tip of the iceberg,” Kindiki said.

The teams digging at the site have been finding decomposed bodies buried in mass and single graves marked with a cross.

Those believed to be living in mudwalled houses inside the ranch have been fleeing from rescue teams, and mostly those who can’t walk or talk have been rescued so far.

The Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights Group called on the government “to consider the option of using aerial surveillance by use of helicopters to rescue more people and make the process quicker.”

The autopsies on the bodies are set to begin on Thursday with local media reporting that government morgues in Kilifi are filled to capacity.

These are Kenya’s worst recorded cult deaths.

The broadcast regulator, Kenya Film and Classification Board, sounded the alarm in 2017 on radicalization-like content by Makenzi on television. The board’s former chairperson, Ezekiel Mutua, told local media that the content was taken off air at the time and law enforcement agencies were notified.

The pastor had been arrested twice before – in 2019 and in March of this year – in relation to the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court system.

The interior minister likened the cult deaths to one run by U.S. preacher Jim Jones, whose 900 followers took poison in a mass suicide in 1978.

Other cult activities that ended up in mass deaths include Uganda’s Kanungu cult massacre that killed 700 followers in 2000.

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