Kenya's opposition to protest, US envoy on way

 

Kenya's opposition vowed to defy police for a second day running on Friday and try to hold a mass rally while the top US diplomat for Africa was flying in amid turmoil in which more than 300 people have been killed.


From dawn riot police ringed Nairobi's Uhuru (Freedom) Park, where the protest was called to start at 10 am (local time).

But the police presence was smaller than on Thursday when opposition efforts to stage the rally were met by police firing teargas, water cannon and warning shots as thousands of youths poured out of slums. Half a dozen people died in the chaos.

Supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga were enraged by President Mwai Kibaki's disputed re-election from a December 27 vote in Kenya, East Africa's biggest economy.

A week of ethnic violence and riots since the vote has shocked the world and threatened to shatter Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's most promising democracies.

More than 300 people have died in clashes -- some between police and protesters, others pitting Luo tribe backers of Odinga against Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced by the violence, some fleeing across the border to Uganda.

As international pressure for mediation failed to bring Kibaki and Odinga together, there was increasing impatience among Kenyans over the political standoff.

"Despite the words of concern by both sides about the dangerous situation in Kenya and public statements that they are ready for dialogue, belligerence is still drowning out voices of reason," said the Daily Nation newspaper.

There were growing calls for some sort of power-sharing government -- including from US President George W. Bush -- as the only way forward.

But neither Kibaki nor Odinga appeared ready for that, the latter saying he was voted the legitimate president but then robbed by fraud.

"BANANA REPUBLIC"

Kenyans are aghast at the turmoil in a nation popular among tourists for its safaris and Indian coastline, and which is a major hub for the United Nations, diplomats, journalists, aid workers and others working around turbulent East Africa.

"Banana republic images on all major Western TV channels, newspapers and websites of bodies in morgues and of police violence and of tribal warriors wielding machetes and axes, are sickening and horrifying," wrote commentator Fred Mudhai.

In the capital's tribally polarised shanty towns, witnesses said the bloodshed went on into the early hours of Friday.

"They are mixing petrol bombs as we speak," said a resident of Kibera, one of Africa's biggest slums.

With the economic ramifications starting to sink in, trading in stocks and currency was halted on Thursday, and it was not clear if dealing would restart on Friday.

The World Bank said the violence could hurt Kenya's impressive economic gains -- and harm countries in the region that rely on it as East Africa's business hub.

Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are already suffering fuel shortages as the conflict chokes off supplies from the coast.

US Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer was due in Nairobi on Friday evening to meet Kibaki and Odinga.

"They have an opportunity to come together in some kind of arrangement that will help heal the wounds," Bush told Reuters.

Senior officials from both sides of Kenya's political divide have traded accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing over the clashes. But on Thursday, Kibaki struck a more conciliatory note in his first words to the press since the troubles began.


"I am ready to have dialogue with the concerned parties once the nation is calm," he told reporters on the State House lawn.

The European Union has also urged him and Odinga to form a coalition government. Its observer mission ruled the vote, especially the count, fell short of key democratic standards.

Kenya's Attorney General Amos Wako said on Thursday both sides should agree on an independent person or body to carry out "a proper tally" of the votes cast. Kenya was degenerating into "a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions", he said.

Many Kenyans were sceptical a recount would work.

"What African president can step down in these circumstances?" said George, a hotel worker. "Besides, the government has had that paperwork for a week. If they cheated, it has been forged by now. Or more likely they burnt it."


Kibkoech Tanui, a Standard newspaper editor, said even letting Kibaki serve another five years despite the suspect manner of his win would be acceptable if it stopped bloodshed like the massacre of 30 people in a rural church.

"I would wipe away my tears and stifle my sense of being cheated if the alternative is churches being turned into pyres to burn up children who might not even know who is ruling Kenya," he wrote. (Reuters)
 
 
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