At least 200 people have been arrested in Tanzania as part of a nationwide crackdown on witchdoctors linked to a wave of albino attacks and murders, police have said.
Police said on Thursday that they had arrested 225 unlicensed traditional healers and soothsayers during a special operation carried out in several parts of the east African country and due to be extended to all 30 regions.
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“Some of those arrested were found in possession of items like lizard skin, warthog teeth, ostrich eggs, monkey tails, bird claws, mule tails and lion skin,” police spokesperson Advera Bulimba said in a statement.
Bulimba said the police campaign would target the entire network of gangsters, traders and witchdoctors, adding that 97 of those detained had already appeared in court.
The statement also appealed to religious leaders, traditional elders, politicians and journalists “to continue the awareness campaign against superstitious beliefs that are holding back the development of our country.”
The announcement comes after President Jakaya Kikwete said the ongoing attacks against people with albinism, whose body parts are used for witchcraft, were “disgusting and a big embarrassment for the nation”.
Albinos are sometimes abducted and killed, fuelled by beliefs that their body parts will bring luck.
In the most recent reported attack, a six-year-old albino boy’s hand was hacked off with a machete and his mother assaulted as she tried to protect him.
In a statement on Thursday, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human rights chief, said there has been a sharp increase this year in attacks on albinos in east Africa, especially in Malawi and Tanzania. He called the attacks “stunningly vicious”.
“As a result, many people with albinism are living in abject fear. Some no longer dare to go outside, and children with albinism have stopped attending school,” the UN official said.
‘A big embarrassment’
On Tuesday police said seven suspects had been arrested in connection with the latest attack, which left the boy and his mother hospitalised.
Last week a Tanzanian court sentenced four people to death for the murder of an albino woman whose legs and right hand were hacked off with an axe and machete.
The killers who were convicted also included the husband of the murdered woman.
President Kikwete met albino activists last week, promising to do more to stop the wave of violence.
“The government has long tried to do everything possible to stop the killings, we are very serious with this,” the president said in a statement.
“But we still need to enhance our efforts to bring to an end these killings, which are disgusting and a big embarrassment to the nation.”
At least 76 albinos have been murdered since 2000 with their dismembered body parts selling for around $600 and entire bodies fetching $75,000, according to United Nations experts.
A further 34 albinos have survived having parts of their bodies hacked off while still alive and grave robbers have dug up at least 15 more, seeking buried limbs and bodies.
Albinism is a hereditary genetic condition which causes a total absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. While one in 20,000 people in the Europe and North America have the condition, one out of every 1,400 people have it in East Africa, according to Canadian charity, Under The Same Sun.
Al Jazeera investigation from 2011 of the sinister trade of body parts of murdered albinos: