Police disperse protesters in Kenya

January 3, 2008 10:11:36 AM PST
Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday to beat back crowds heading for a banned rally to protest Kenya's disputed election, and the president said he is willing to talk to the opposition once calm has been restored.The attorney general, who was appointed by President Mwai Kibaki's predecessor, called for an independent body to verify the vote tally.

Kenya's electoral commission said Kibaki had won the Dec. 27 vote, but rival candidate Raila Odinga alleged the vote was rigged. The dispute has triggered ethnic violence across the country that killed 300 people and displaced 100,000 others.

As attempts at mediating the crisis gained momentum, Kibaki said he was willing to hold talks.

"I am ready to have dialogue with concerned parties once the nation is calm and the political temperatures are lowered enough for constructive and productive engagement," Kibaki said, hours after police halted the planned march by opposition protesters.

South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu flew to Nairobi and met Odinga. Tutu said afterward that Odinga was ready for "the possibility of mediation."

Tutu gave no details but said he hoped to meet Kibaki as well. Government spokesman Alfred Mutua, however, said Kibaki had no plans yet for such a meeting and that Kenya had no need for mediators. "We are not in a civil war," he said.

The State Department said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made three telephone calls Thursday to discuss developments in Kenya: one to Kibaki, one to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and one to the U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger.

An official from Solana's office said he and Rice agreed the EU and U.S. should press the parties in Kenya to establish a coalition government and discussed a proposal to send a joint EU-U.S. envoy to mediate.

But the State Department disputed that characterization of the conversation, saying that while they had agreed on the need for political reconciliation between the Kenyan rivals, neither had specifically endorsed the formation of coalition or a government of national unity.

"We're not going to be prescriptive here," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "They do need to come together, they need to broker some political solution to the political crisis. They need to find a political solution, what that political solution is going to be up to them. They are going to have to define that."

"A government of national unity - the secretary didn't use those words," he said.

Rice spoke by phone with Kibaki a day after her aides began trying to arrange the call. She appealed for calm and a peaceful resolution to the allegations of electoral fraud, McCormack said. Rice gave a similar message to Odinga on Wednesday and told both men that Ranneberger would follow up with them.

The dispute has degenerated into violence nationwide pitting Kibaki's influential Kikuyus against Odinga's Luos and other tribes, and has shaken Kenya's image as an tourist-friendly oasis of stability in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.

Smoke from burning tires and debris rose from barricaded streets, not just around Nairobi's huge slums where hundreds of thousands of Odinga's supporters live, but on main roads leading into suburbs that are home to upper class Kenyans and expatriates.

In the Mathare slum, rival groups of men hurled rocks at each other. Black smoke billowed from a burning gas station, and several charred cars sat on roads. The corpse of at least one man lay face down on a muddy path, and a wailing wife pulled her battered husband from the dark waters of the Nairobi River, where he had been dumped and left for dead.

Kenya Television Network showed a church consumed by fire in the Kibera slum. Police pushed back a crowd of several hundred people from Kibera holding branches and white flags symbolizing peace. Some burned an effigy of Kibaki and waved placards denouncing him as the devil.

"Without Raila, there will be no peace," said protester Edward Muli, 22.

Hundreds of young men marched in the coastal resort of Mombasa but were quickly repulsed by security forces. Police shot one protester in the head and he was taken to a hospital, said witness Moses Baya.

After Nairobi police used tear gas and water cannons to break up crowds trying to march to a planned demonstration in the capital, a top official with Odinga's main opposition party said the protest rally had been canceled and he urged supporters to go home.

"We are a peaceful people who do not want violence," William Ruto, a top party official told hundreds of supporters through a megaphone on a street. "That is why we are peacefully dispersing now."

Odinga postponed the rally until Friday.

He toured Nairobi's City Mortuary, which was full of piles of bodies of babies, children, young men and women. Some were burned, while others had head wounds. Many did not have visible wounds. It was unclear when they had died, but opposition officials said some were killed Thursday.

"What we have just seen defies description," Odinga said after the visit. "We can only describe it as genocide on a grand scale."

Foreign observers have questioned the vote count, as has the chief of Kenya's electoral commission.

"Because of the perception that the presidential results were rigged, it is necessary ... that a proper tally of the valid certificates returned and confirmed should be undertaken immediately" by an independent body, Attorney General Amos Wako said in a statement that was read on television.

Wako did not elaborate or say whether an independent body would include foreign observers, and it was unclear whether he had Kibaki's backing or had made the statement independently.

Wako was appointed to the lifetime post by former President Daniel arap Moi. While he has been seen as close to Kibaki, the decision to launch an independent election probe was a surprise and could reflect the seriousness of the rigging allegations.

However, the government has a long history of appointing independent commissions to investigate wrongdoing, only to have them take years and end with reports that are never released and have no practical effects.

Mutua told The Associated Press he had "no problem" with Wako's call. But Odinga's spokesman, Salim Lone, rejected it, saying his party had "no faith in any government institution."

Kenya's main newspapers ran front-page headlines urging people to "save our beloved country."

Ranneberger, speaking on Kenyan Television News, said the violence "has got to stop." Kibaki "needs to speak out and Odinga needs to speak out and bring this thing to an end."

Sir Edward Clay, former British High Commissioner to Kenya, said Tutu's presence would help.

"I think that Kenyans, including the Kenyan government, are concerned about what outsiders think of them. I think that the presence of Desmond Tutu is a presence that they will respect," he said on BBC World Service television.

Neighboring Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's office said he had spoken to the two rivals, also trying to end the unrest. But Museveni had also congratulated Kibaki on his re-election.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission urged Kibaki to agree to an independent review of the disputed ballot count, saying in a statement: "Kenya will not survive this moment unless our leaders act like statesmen."

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Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Khaled Kazziha, Tom Maliti, Malkhadir M. Muhumed, Tom Odula and Todd Pitman contributed to this report.


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