Kenya rally halted after day of battles

The Attorney General on Thursday called for an independent probe into Kenya’s election after a day of battles in Nairobi between police and demonstrators disputing the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki.

The opposition called off a rally in a central park, saying it wanted to save lives, after a day of fighting during which police fired live rounds in the air and smoke billowed over the city slums.

But it scheduled another public meeting for next Tuesday.

Piling the pressure on Kibaki, Attorney General Amos Wako said in a statement: ”It is necessary … that a proper tally of the valid certificates returned and confirmed should be undertaken immediately on a priority basis by an agreed and independent person or body.”

After stocks took a hit on Wednesday, the Nairobi Stock Exchange closed on Thursday due to the mayhem. The shilling, which slumped 5% in the previous session, bounced 1,3% against the dollar before trading was suspended on Thursday.

Tea and coffee auctions were postponed.

From dawn, riot police were out in force as the city slowly transformed into an all-out battleground.

”This is dictatorship now,” protester Julius Akech shouted, in the latest bout of unrest in a week of tribal and political violence in which more than 300 Kenyans have been killed.

Opposition leaders defied police and set off from their headquarters for the rally against Kibaki’s continued hold on power in Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy and an ally of the West in its efforts to counter al-Qaeda.

Thousands poured out of the pro-opposition Kibera slum and other shantytowns after dawn to head for Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, or Freedom Park in Swahili, for the planned million-strong rally that Kibaki’s government has banned.

When they were stopped by riot police, some protesters — wearing white scarves, waving leaves and singing the national anthem — sat in streets, blocking traffic.

As tempers rose, protesters burned cars and buildings.

Police used tear gas and water cannons. They fired in the air when, in one case, the crowd kneeled, shouting ”Kill us all.”

The daily violence has shocked world leaders and choked supplies of fuel and other goods to a swathe of central Africa.

Pro-Kibaki legislators called for opposition leader Raila Odinga and others to be charged by the International Criminal Court for ”ethnic cleansing and genocide”.

The opposition has said that a police order to shoot during protests by its supporters was ”bordering on genocide”.

There have been international calls for reconciliation in a nation that had become known as a vibrant democracy and peacemaker in Africa, rather than a trouble spot.

”This is a country that has been held up as a model of stability. This picture has been shattered,” said South Africa’s Nobel peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Kenya to try and start mediation.

”I don’t think there is anybody who would be unmoved by the pictures that are coming out — of people who burned to death in a church. This is not the Kenya that we know.”

‘Civilian coup’

Odinga called Kibaki a ”thief” who had carried out ”a civilian coup”. He said, however, he would accept international mediation and proposed setting up an interim power-sharing government to prepare for a re-run of the vote.

”The people will not take this vote-rigging by the government lying down,” he said before meeting Tutu.

Supporters set up barricades on roads around the opposition’s ”Orange House” headquarters. As opposition leaders left for the rally, some police smiled, let them pass and shook fists in a show of solidarity.

In rural areas, the unrest has touched off deep ethnic tensions. In an area where about 30 members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe were killed in a church set on fire by a mob, young men with machetes manned roadblocks and hunted for their enemies.

Protesters began to overwhelm police as they tried to enter the centre of Kisumu, an opposition stronghold in western Kenya already ravaged by riots and looting.

The turmoil was likely to hurt tourism, Kenya’s biggest earner worth about $800-million a year.

Kikuyus, long dominant in politics and business, were targeted in initial clashes but revenge killings — including some by the Kikuyu militant gang Mungiki — are on the rise.

The government said ”well-organised acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were well planned, financed and rehearsed” by Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement ahead of last week’s vote.

Observers said the vote fell short of democratic standards.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni became the first African leader to send congratulations to Kibaki. But at the same time, Kampala closed its borders to business due to the violence.

Hundreds of refugees, however, were allowed to cross into Uganda, taking shelter in schools and churches. The irony is not lost on Kenyans, used to taking in refugees from conflict zones in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda.

Kenyan media united in pleas for peace, with every major newspaper running the same front-page headline: ”Save Our Beloved Country”.

”Kenya is a burnt-out, smouldering ruin. The economy is at a virtual standstill and the armies of destruction are on the march,” said the Nation.

”In the midst of this, leaders — who are the direct cause of this catastrophe — are issuing half-hearted calls for peace, from the comfort of their hotels and walled homes in Nairobi, where they are conveyed in bullet-proof limousines.” — Reuters

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