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LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - A rising number of mutilated bodies washing up on Gabon's beaches this year has sown fear in the normally sleepy capital Libreville of a resurgence in ritual killings.
The body parts of humans and animals are prized by some in central Africa for their supposed supernatural powers, including among some politicians bent on gaining influence.
"We have seen 20 killings since the start of the year," said Jean-Elvis Ebang Ondo, the president of Gabon's Association for the Prevention of Ritual Crimes, in Libreville.
He said most of the victims were young girls whose lips, tongues, genitals and other organs had been removed.
The killings have stirred rising anger against President Ali Bongo's government for doing too little to halt the murders.
"We want to shout out our fury and tell the authorities that this needs to stop," said Jessy Biyambou, a member of the Cry of Women advocacy group, which is organizing an April 6 rally in support of victims' families.
Roland Akoumba, whose 8-year-old daughter was found dead in mid-March, told Reuters he was losing hope for justice.
"When the police removed the body from the water, they saw that the tongue, the lips, and the genitals were cut off," he said. "I filed a complaint but I know it will go nowhere."
Officials from the notoriously closed-door government of the former French colony have declined to comment publicly on the killings.
Bongo was elected president in 2009 in polls that triggered days of rioting and opposition complaints of fraud. He succeeded his father Omar Bongo, who held a tight grip on power in the oil producing state from 1967 until his death 42 years later.
"The phenomenon of ritual crimes is real. But no one here is willing to turn anyone else in for fear they too will be in danger," said a member of parliament, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
In the most high-profile ritual murder court case in Gabon to date, a convicted killer accused a Gabonese senator of ordering the 2009 murder of a 12-year-old girl for her organs.
The senator's immunity was lifted after the accusation was made late last year, but he has not been indicted. The senator has denied any involvement.
Gabon is not the only African country with a black market trade in human organs.
Tomb raiders dug up more than 100 graves in Benin's capital in November. Cameroonian authorities in September arrested five people for trafficking after they were stopped at a checkpoint with a severed human head.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Jon Hemming