/ 14 January 2008

Kenya braces for tough week, deaths rise to 612

Kenya’s feuding parties prepared on Monday for fresh duels in parliament and on the streets despite another international push to mediate a post-election crisis that has now killed at least 612 people.

But for many around the East African nation, the top priority was getting millions of children back to their studies after a one-week delay because of the turmoil since President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election in a disputed December 27 vote.

”Life has to go on,” said Esther Muhito, preparing her children to return to classes in Molo, a town in the Rift Valley where ethnic clashes have killed scores. In some camps housing refugees, volunteers were setting up temporary classrooms.

The crisis has dented Kenya’s democratic credentials and previously booming economy, hit supplies to East and Central African neighbours, and rattled Western donors.

Rachel Arungah, chairperson of the government’s Humanitarian Services Committee which is collating data on the crisis, told Reuters the death toll stood at 612 on Monday.

Most of the deaths have come from fighting between rival ethnic communities, clashes between police and protesters, plus looting and mob violence, witnesses say.

The number of refugees had dropped, as some people return to their homes, to 199 204, Arungah added.

Awaiting Annan

Former United Nations head Kofi Annan was due to fly into Kenya on Tuesday at the head of an ”Eminent Africans” group to try and help kickstart dialogue between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who have not met since the vote.

African Union head John Kufuor, and other international figures, including Washington’s top diplomat for Africa Jendayi Frazer, failed last week to bring the sides together.

Kibaki has entrenched his position by naming half a Cabinet, convening Parliament and continuing with state functions.

But the opposition has more seats in the new assembly and Tuesday’s opening session promises to be a bruising affair. ”It will be a battleground where all manner of wars are going to be fought,” analyst Mutakha Kangu told Reuters.

Opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) legislators are threatening to sit on government seats they say are rightfully theirs. The first business will be to name a new speaker.

ODM has also called for three days of nationwide protests starting on Wednesday, but police have banned them.

Western powers have criticised the ban on rallies, and a ban on live broadcasts since Kibaki’s December 30 swearing in.

At the weekend, the European Union and United States said there could be ”no business as usual” with Nairobi unless a political compromise was agreed that restored stability.

Kibaki (76) has said he is prepared to speak to Odinga about a possible power-sharing arrangement.

But the opposition leader, a 63-year-old former ally of Kibaki’s who split with him in 2005, says he will only meet through an international mediator and wants the election re-run.

ODM on Monday accused Uganda — one of just four African nations to recognise Kibaki’s win along with Swaziland, Morocco and Somalia — of sending troops across the border to help Kenyan security forces.

”Ugandan troops have gone into villages and markets harassing people and causing mayhem. They have caused deaths,” a statement from some ODM legislators said.

Kenyan police denied that. – Reuters