NAIROBI, Sep 23 (Reuters) Ugandan police have arrested 12 leaders of a doomsday cult that believes floods swamping large parts of the north and east of the country herald the end of the world, state media said today.
Apocalyptic sects are a particularly sensitive subject for the east African nation, where another group killed nearly 800 followers in massacres and a mass suicide after its prediction the world would end at the start of 2000 failed to come true.
It has been among the hardest hit of 17 African countries ravaged by floods in recent weeks. Some 300,000 Ugandans, many already uprooted by conflict, have been affected.
''We sent our investigation team who found cult members praying and claiming they are prophets sent by God with 18 commandments to preach the end of the world,'' a police commander in Gulu town, Johnson Kilama, told the Sunday Vision newspaper.
Police said the 12 cult leaders would be charged with unlawful assembly and being idle and disorderly.
The leader of the group, which called itself the New Jerusalem Church, was 37-year-old Francis Opwonya.
''The creator told me five things will happen as a sign of the end of the world before the last judgment,'' he was quoted as saying by the Vision after his arrest.
The first was the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic, then famine, then earthquakes, Opwonya said. Floods and hailstones came last.
The group sprinkled water on followers and smeared others with butter extracted from the shea tree. Officers removed several items used as idols, including a bamboo pole that Opwonya said symbolised the key God would use to lock the main gate of Jerusalem on judgment day.
Gulu was the epicentre of a two-decade civil war between government troops and notorious Lord's Resistance Army rebels who claimed divine inspiration for their massacres and the abduction of thousands of children as soldiers and sex slaves.
But for most Ugandans, word of doomsday cults brings bitter memories of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, which burnt hundreds of members alive in a church in Kanungu, near the Congolese border, in March 2000.
Police believe leaders systematically killed hundreds more followers after their judgment day forecast failed to happen, and corpses were found in mass graves across the country.
Arrest warrants were issued for six cult leaders, but police admit they still do not know if they died in the Kanungu blaze.
REUTERS SKB VC1620