Relatives have faced an anxious wait for news of their loved ones
Relatives have faced an anxious wait for news of their loved ones AFP

A high-profile Kenyan pastor appeared in court on Friday suspected of links to the discovery of dozens of bodies in mass graves that has been dubbed the "Shakahola forest massacre".

Ezekiel Odero, the head of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, was arrested on Thursday in the coastal town of Malindi accused of the "mass killing" of his followers.

Prosecutors said Odero is suspected of crimes including murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalisation, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.

The wealthy televangelist was arraigned in a magistrate's court in the port city of Mombasa, where prosecutors asked for him to be detained for another 30 days to enable police to complete their investigations.

The unearthing of bodies in Shakahola forest near Malindi over the past week has shocked the largely Christian nation and led the government to promise to crack down on fringe religious groups.

The prosecution said in a statement to the court that there was "credible information" linking bodies exhumed from Shakahola forest near Malindi to the deaths of "several innocent and vulnerable followers" of Odero.

"The police have established that several deaths... occurred within the precincts of the New Life Ministry" in Mavueni, not far from Malindi, the statement added, without giving a precise number.

It said police were investigating "intelligence information" that the bodies were kept in a privately-run morgue before being transported and buried in the forest.

Odero's arrest followed the detention of Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, a cult leader accused of the deaths of dozens of followers who were allegedly ordered to starve themselves to death to find God.

The prosecutors said Odero and Nthenge share a "history of business investments" including a television station which was used to pass "radicalised messages" to followers.

Searches began in Shakahola forest earlier this month after a tipoff to police who initially found 15 starving people, four of whom died.

The death toll now stands at 109, after 11 bodies were exhumed on Thursday, a police source told AFP.

Most of the victims are children, according to sources close to the investigation.

Nthenge, a former taxi driver who headed the Good News International Church, is himself due in court on Tuesday.

The prosecution statement said police were investigating allegations that followers "would dispose of all their earthly possessions and surrender the proceeds to him as part of the preparations to meet their maker".

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki paid another visit to the crime scene on Friday afternoon.

"The government has upscaled the search and rescue efforts for persons suspected to be holed up in the thickets in Shakahola," he said in a statement posted on Facebook.

"The multi-agency security team is doing its best to save as many lives as possible," he said, adding that a public information, tracing and support centre had been set up for public inquiries and assistance.

The local director for the Red Cross, Hassan Musa, told AFP that autopsies on the recovered bodies had not yet begun.

Kenyan investigators are still searching for victims of the so-called 'Shakahola forest massacre'
Kenyan investigators are still searching for victims of the so-called 'Shakahola forest massacre' AFP