Vigilante groups have killed at least eight people in northern Malawi claiming to be protecting communities from “bloodsuckers”, a local official has said.

The latest victims were from Mozambique and were attacked on Monday while travelling to Tanzania through Malawi’s northern region.

“A group of vigilantes apprehended them but because of the language barrier, they could not understand each other,” the regional spokesman, Peter Kalaya, told AFP.

“So the vigilantes attacked them,” he said. “When the police arrived … two were already dead.”

Kalaya said the vigilantes mobilised themselves into groups last month after hearing tales of a bloodsucking cult.

“Since the rumours emerged, people have resorted to taking the law into their own hands and apprehending any people that they deem suspicious,” Kalaya said, adding that at least eight people had been killed so far.

Police are investigating the attacks and 117 people have been arrested.

President Peter Mutharika has condemned the killings saying people had “been brutally killed in a mob justice because of being suspected to be bloodsuckers”.

In an address to the nation earlier in the week, he said: “These rumours are baseless and only deliberately created,” . He described the attacks as a “political strategy” to create “fear and panic” beore an election re-run this year.

He recalled similar rumours ahead of last year’s presidential elections, and said the scaremongering was now taking place “when we have a collective war against coronavirus”.

Malawi was one of the last African countries to detect cases of the virus, announcing its first three on 2 April.

The number of recorded infections has since risen to eight, with one death.

It is not the first time rumours of “bloodsuckers” have fuelled violence in Malawi. A similar spate of mob attacks took place in 2017, leaving nine people dead and prompting 250 arrests.

The United Nations has called on the government to prosecute perpetrators and dispel the rumours.

“Dangerous myths and misinformation are feeding these vigilante attacks,” the UN’s resident coordinator in the country, Maria Torres, said in a statement.

“[The killings] constitute serious breaches of Malawian criminal law and human rights standards.”

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