LAGOS, Nigeria -- Police in eastern Nigeria discovered body parts, skulls and more than 50 corpses, some partly mummified, in shrines where a secretive cult was believed to have carried out ritual killings, officers said Thursday. Some victims may have died after swallowing poison to prove their innocence.
Two religious leaders and 28 others have been arrested in connection with the cult, which was feared and obeyed by people living near wooded areas -- one known as "the evil forest" -- where the 20 shrines were located, police said.
Investigators are searching near the town of Okija for more possible remains, police spokes-man Kolapo Shofoluwe said. "We must go around the forest. It may take days," he said.
All of the dead found so far were adults, and at least one body and four skulls appeared to be from those killed recently, he said. Some of the bodies were in coffins, and some were headless.
Police believed some of the victims -- businessmen, civil servants and others -- were poisoned. The cult, known as Alusi Okija, is believed to practice a ritual in which people involved in disputes settle them by drinking a potion they are told will kill only the guilty.
The ceremonial chief priest was not arrested because of his advanced age. "He's an old man. We don't want him to die in police custody," state police commissioner Felix Ogbaudu said.
A photo taken by a local photojournalist showed more than a dozen shirtless suspects, surrounded by police, sitting huddled around a coffin containing a body and with several skulls nearby.
Alusi Okija -- which takes its name from a local, oracle god and the town -- is an ancient sect of the area's ethnic Ibo people. Few details of the cult were available Thursday -- but police said the ritual of swallowing poisons to test guilt is believed to have been practiced for "over 100 years."
The practice was originally intended to deter crime but has become a way for priests and their collaborators to kill and defraud people, Ogbaudu said.
The police spokesman, Shofoluwe, described a typical scenario in which one man complains to the chief priests that another man has cheated him in business. Both parties are called to a shrine to resolve the dispute.
"The entire region has so much respect and fear for such calls or summons that they usually go there to defend it," he said.
After the poisoning ritual, the community hands the body, money and property of the deceased to the priests, the spokesman said.
Investigators found the shrines after the national police inspector-general received a complaint from a man who "alleged that his life was being threatened by a group of persons" linked to the killings, Shofoluwe said, without elaborating.
Police declined to identify the victims, and residents of the town could not immediately be reached for comment. But reports of ritual murders regularly fill the pages of Nigerian newspapers.
Three years ago, the issue came to international attention when the torso of an unidentified boy was found floating in the Thames River in London. British police believe the boy became a victim of a ritual killing after being brought to Britain from southwestern Nigeria.
Some ritual killings in West Africa are carried out in the belief they provide wealth or success to a third party. Other rituals involve using body parts as traditional medicine.
Such killings are widely abhorred and condemned by Africans.
"Naturally, as a human being I was shocked at the horrific sight in the forest and then wondered if such events can still happen in this 21st century, that people can still practice such barbaric acts," said Shofoluwe. "I never believed that such a thing can exist in the modern day world."