By George Obulutsa
NAIROBI, March 4 (Reuters) - Tanzania’s president has urged the public to identify the killers behind a spate of ritual albino murders that have tarnished the reputation of the east African nation.
Police and officials will deploy in 22 regions next week and offer people the chance to confidentially name the culprits. At least 40 albinos have been killed in Tanzania since mid-2007, mostly in the remote northwest near Lake Victoria.
"Even the officer in charge ... will not know who you named," President Jakaya Kikwete said in a speech seen by Reuters on Wednesday. "I am urging you to help us in stopping these cruel acts and this shame on our country."
The murders are embarrassing for the government which wants to capitalise on its image as a stable destination for foreign investment in otherwise volatile east Africa.
At least 90 people, including four police officers, have been arrested in recent months for involvement in the killings or the trade in albino body parts -- which witchdoctors tell their clients will bring them luck in love, life and business.
The violence has also spread to neighbouring states, with at least one albino murder each in Burundi and Kenya last year. Police in those countries say Tanzanians ordered the killings.
The killing of albinos for witchcraft is not unique to east Africa. It is a common problem in several west African nations and one of the films at the pan-African film and television festival this year is about an albino murdered in Mali.
In January, Tanzania authorities scrapped the licences of all the country’s traditional healers, trying to stamp out the practice.
Albinos lack a pigment in their eyes, skin or hair which makes them especially vulnerable to skin cancer and burns, and makes life particularly difficult in sun-drenched Africa.
The Tanzania Albino Society welcomed Kikwete’s move, but said it worried people living near Lake Victoria -- where the exercise will kick off -- would be too scared to give names.
"We urge the people in the lake zone to cooperate and not fear to name the culprits. They live among us," the society’s Zihada Msembo told Reuters by telephone from Dar es Salaam.
There are thought to be more than 200,000 albinos in Tanzania, which has an overall population of some 40 million.
During a visit to Tanzania last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an end to what he called "superstitious behaviour" and an "unacceptable violation of human rights." (Editing by Daniel Wallis)