200 witchdoctors arrested in Tanzania crackdown

Much of the violence against albinos has occurred in Tanzania, where dozens have been slaughtered or severely wounded since 2006 (AFP Photo/Bunyamin Aygun)

Dar es Salaam (AFP) - Over 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 said Thursday.

Police said they had arrested 225 unlicenced 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.

"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".

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.

On Tuesday police said seven suspects had been arrested in connection with that 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 with 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. It affects one Tanzanian in 1,400, often as a result of inbreeding, experts say.