LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - When the body of 13-year-old Ralph Edang N'na was found drained of blood and with gaping wounds in his genitals, chest and neck last month, many in Gabon thought it was politicians who had ordered his killing.
The murder of children and young adults, whose organs are eaten or used to make magical amulets, has increased in recent years in the oil-rich central African nation. Campaigners say some Gabonese politicians use the black magic rituals to boost their chances of winning lucrative government posts.
With elections to local municipal councils due on April 27, many fear a spate of gruesome child murders.
Every week, mutilated bodies are discovered in the capital Libreville, despite police patrols, and streets quickly empty after nightfall. Anxious parents are keeping a close watch around schools to prevent children from being snatched.
"It's before elections and ministerial reshuffles that the vilest crimes are committed and the capital empties of certain kinds of politicians who go to the interior to carry out witchcraft," said pastor Francois Bibang, a member of the Association to Fight Ritual Crimes (ALCR).
In ritual killings, which still take place in several African countries, people, often children, are killed to obtain body parts and blood in the belief they will bring social success and political power.
The ALCR says that in February alone there were 12 such killings in Gabon.
"Unfortunately, this practice seems to be spreading again in Gabon," said Jean-Elvis Ebang Ondo, who founded ALCR after his 12-year-old son was kidnapped, killed and mutilated in 2005.
The government set up a National Observatory for the Rights of Children in November 2006 to implement the U.N. charter on children's rights, enshrining the right to health, education and protection from abuse.
Gabon, with just 1.6 million people, is one of sub-Saharan Africa's largest oil producers but most of its population continue to live in poverty, while members of a rich elite drive shiny new cars along Libreville's sea front boulevard.
Omar Bongo, the world's longest-serving president, has ruled the country since 1967 and used the oil funds to weave a web of patronage which has created bitter competition for lucrative political jobs.
Ondo condemned "the silence of the state" and called on residents to "fight off these assassins who sow terror in the heart of Gabonese society."
After a penal code approved in January omitted any mention of ritual crimes, Ondo called on the government to find out how many people had been killed in this way.
But no clear figures exist for how many children and teenagers are slain in ritual killings in Gabon.
The head of an association against ritual crimes, Frederic Ntera Etoua, said 290 killings had occurred since 1986 in the thick jungles of the Ogooue-Ivindo province in the northeast, where Ralph Edang N'na was killed.
"There is a pyramid organization with politicians at its head who pursue the famous 'spare parts' then the recruiters who are middle men and then the suppliers and sellers who find the innocent victims," said Bibang.
Parliamentary speaker Guy Nzouba Ndama opened the latest session of the assembly on March 3 by denouncing ritual crimes by politicians.
So far no politicians have been convicted for involvement in such crimes. An attempt to prosecute a legislator from the oil-rich region of Gamba last year failed after he claimed parliamentary immunity.
Philippe Ndong, a psychology teacher at Libreville university, traces the rise in ritual crimes to 2001.
"As legislative elections approached, mutilated bodies were discovered around the country," said Ndong. "An 8-year-old girl was snatched in Ndolou department and killed in Mouila. The man allegedly responsible was a candidate to parliament who entered the government after this crime."
Ndong cites other ritual murders. In 2002, a man in his 20s, Lucien Bigoundou, was killed in the Digoudou forest of central Gabon while on a hunting trip with companions who cut off his genitals and other parts of his body.
In March 2005, the bodies of two 12-year-old boys were washed up on a Libreville beach -- one was Ebang Ondo's son. A month later, six-year-old Warlys Igor Mboumba was found dead in a Libreville gutter, his body drained of blood.
In January 2006, the bodies of three children under four were discovered in the trunk of a car in a private yard.
And last April, two men suspected of sodomizing a 3-year-old boy and draining his blood in a ritual killing were lynched.
"It is up to the government to put a swift end to this impunity or risk seeing a rise in mob justice," said pastor Emile Ngoua, a member of the ALCR.
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Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Clar NiChonghaile