/ 16 January 2008

Kenyan police battle opposition protesters

Kenyan police battled hundreds of opposition protesters on Wednesday, killing two, as the opposition defied a ban on rallies against President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election, witnesses said.

In the western opposition stronghold of Kisumu and the coastal city of Mombasa youths began gathering in the morning, some burning tyres and erecting roadblocks.

Police in Kisumu dispersed a 1 000-strong crowd with tear gas, batons and firing bullets in the air. One man was shot dead and another badly hurt, witnesses said.

A Reuters cameraman saw a corpse in the street, with bullet wounds in the back and side.

In Nairobi, police chased protesters through the central business district, firing tear gas and live rounds in the air. The gas seeped into nearby office buildings.

Many Kenyans and expatriates in the capital stayed at home, shopkeepers nailed up windows and traffic was thin.

Hundreds of people have died and 250 000 have been left homeless in the turmoil since Kibaki was sworn in after a December 27 vote that Opposition Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga says was rigged.

Police outlawed three days of rallies called by the ODM.

In Mombasa, police dispersed about 150 youths, scattering them briefly before they attempted to regroup, witnesses said.

And gangs threw up roadblocks near Eldoret, in the Rift Valley area worst hit by violence in recent weeks.

”We want Kibaki to resign and pave the way for our rightful President Raila Odinga,” said demonstrator Joel Oduor in Kisumu, coughing and crying from tear gas.

Kenya’s political crisis has jeopardised its democratic credentials, angered donors, driven tourists away and hurt one of Africa’s most promising economies.

Fuelling doubt over Kibaki’s win — officially by 230 000 of 10-million votes cast — a senior United States official said on Wednesday it was impossible to know who won the presidency.

”We have done our own analysis. What it shows is that the result was extremely close and that whoever won probably won with no more than 100 000 votes at the most,” Washington’s ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, told the Daily Nation.

”It is really not possible to say with certainty who won because the process was not transparent.”

But he called for power-sharing rather than a new vote or re-count.

Government challenges critics

Though Kibaki has solidified his position by naming a core Cabinet and convening Parliament, the opposition received a boost by winning the post of speaker in the assembly on Tuesday.

”Yesterday [Tuesday] marked a turning point,” Odinga told reporters. ”The terrible wrong done Kenyans on December 27 will not be able to stand. This is an illegitimate presidency.”

Though ODM has the most legislators of any one party, it does not have enough to bring a no-confidence vote unless Kibaki-allied parties join it.

Underscoring its narrow edge in Parliament, ODM’s choice for speaker won by just four votes against the government’s choice.

After a news conference, Odinga and other opposition leaders began heading in a convoy towards Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, which was ringed by riot police to prevent protests.

In Nairobi’s Kibera slum, dozens of youths blocked a road with logs and chanted ”No Raila, No Peace!”

Some nailed an effigy of Kibaki to a cross.

In a statement, 13 nations, including the US, threatened to withdraw direct aid to the government, and channel funds via other means, if its commitment to ”good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights weakens”.

But the government challenged critics to provide proof.

”You have publicly claimed that the presidential results were flawed. Can you provide tangible evidence?” said a state advert in local media. ”Are you aware that your opinions have created tension? … We are still waiting!”

The opposition also stands accused of rigging and ballot-stuffing in its own heartlands on December 27. — Reuters