Major protest called off in Nairobi

January 3, 2008 6:43:39 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 presidential election, and the attorney general called for an independent body to verify the vote tally.

Kenya's electoral commission said President Mwai 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.

A European Union official said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would discuss a proposal to mediate the crisis.

Smoke from burning tires and debris rose from barricaded streets, not just around the city'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 angry men hurled rocks at each other. Black smoke billowed from a burning gas station, and several charred cars sat along roadside. 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 video of 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 one of the protesters, 22-year-old Edward Muli.

In the coastal resort city of Mombasa, hundreds of young men marched toward downtown in similar protests, 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 police used tear gas and water cannons to break up crowds trying to march to a planned demonstration in the capital of Nairobi, a top official with Odinga's main opposition party said the protest rally had been canceled and he called on 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 Nairobi street. "That is why we are peacefully dispersing now."

Solana will discuss the violence with Rice and propose sending a joint EU-U.S. envoy to Kenya to mediate, an official from Solana's office told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"Solana is deeply concerned by the situation and will be speaking to Rice as soon as he can, possibly this evening," the official said.

Odinga 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."

Odinga vowed more rallies would follow.

Although both sides say they are ready to talk, the Odinga and Kibaki camps have mostly traded accusations that the other is fueling ethnic violence. Odinga says he will not meet with Kibaki unless the latter concedes he lost the presidency, something Kibaki is unlikely to do.

Foreign observers have questioned the vote count, as has the chief of the nation'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.

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.

The political dispute has degenerated into ethnic 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.

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

"It's got to stop," U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger said of the violence, speaking on Kenyan Television News. Kibaki "needs to speak out and Odinga needs to speak out and bring this thing to an end."

Though both sides say they are ready to talk, the Odinga and Kibaki camps have mostly traded accusations that the other is fueling ethnic violence. Odinga says he will not meet with Kibaki unless the latter concedes he lost the presidency, something Kibaki is unlikely to do.

In a bid to help ease the crisis, South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu flew to Nairobi and met Odinga. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said 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 said Kibaki had no plans yet for such a meeting.

Neighboring Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's office said he had spoken to the two rivals, also trying to end the unrest. But Museveni also issued a statement congratulating Kibaki for being re-elected.

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."

Confusion has surrounded the disputed count. The head of the country's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, said he was pressured by both sides to announce the results quickly. The Nairobi newspaper The Standard quoted Kivuitu on Wednesday as saying: "I do not know whether Kibaki won the election."

Police Chief Mark Mwara called the protesters "hooligans" and accused them of attacking petrol stations and supermarkets. Some shops around the city were set on fire.

Uhuru Park, where protesters were expected to converge in the city center, was empty, surrounded by truckloads of riot police in red berets.

Government spokesman Mutua said clashes had only affected about 3 percent of the country's 34 million people. "Kenya is not burning and not (in) the throes of any division," he said, adding that security forces had arrested 500 people since skirmishes began.

Vice President Moody Awori said on a local television station that the unrest was costing the country $31 million daily. Uganda says many gas stations there have shut down because of shortages of fuel, most of which is imported by road from Kenya's Indian Ocean coast.

The independent Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights said in a joint statement that more than 300 people had been killed nationwide since the Dec. 27 vote.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated more than 100,000 people have been displaced. Around 5,400 people have fled to neighboring Uganda, said Musa Ecweru, that country's disaster preparedness minister. Several hundred people also have fled to Tanzania, officials there said.


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