/ 17 January 2008

Kenya police, protesters face off

Kenyan police clashed with opposition members on Thursday in a second day of unrest over President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election, and the opposition said police had killed seven.

In opposition strongholds in the capital, Nairobi, and the western town of Kisumu, police fired tear gas and bullets on the second of three days of banned rallies called by opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

Odinga, who says the government stole the election, said police shot dead seven protesters in Nairobi.

”Police are shooting innocent civilians at will … the government has turned this country into a killing field of innocents,” he told reporters, providing no further details.

Police had no immediate comment but in the past have said that its officers have shot ODM supporters engaged in looting.

In the Kibera slum in Odinga’s Nairobi constituency, a Reuters cameraman said people there had hijacked a train passing through and were stealing its cargo.

Kenya’s rapid plunge into crisis has tarnished its democratic credentials, horrified world powers, scared off tourists and hurt one of Africa’s most promising economies.

In three weeks since the December 27 vote, violence pitting police against protesters and opposition gangs against tribes seen as pro-Kibaki has caused more than 600 deaths.

Odinga said on Thursday, however, that more than 1 000 people had died in unrest.

A quarter of a million people, mostly from Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, have been turned into refugees in the turmoil surrounding a vote foreign observers, including the Commonwealth on Thursday, say fell short of democratic standards.

The European Parliament on Thursday recommended that budgetary aid be frozen until the crisis is solved, although unlike many of its African neighbours Kenya, is not aid-dependent.

Former United Nations head Kofi Annan, due to lead talks to end the stand-off, is recovering from a bout of flu that delayed his trip, the UN said, but gave no date for his arrival.

With few options left as Kibaki has entrenched his administration and talks brokered by African leaders have yielded nothing, the ODM has taken its fight to the streets.

‘Disrupt people’s lives’

The government accuses Odinga’s side of rigging votes, orchestrating ethnic killings and ignoring court challenges in favour of violence. The opposition says the courts are biased and accuse the police of opening fire on peaceful protesters.

”They are just waking up at 10 o’clock, eating eggs and sausages, giving interviews and planning how to disrupt people’s lives,” government spokesperson Alfred Mutua told reporters.

In Nairobi’s Mathare slum, clouds of tear gas rose above the tin-roofed shacks as police firing weapons chased protesters through the muddy maze of homes. Protesters earlier tried to block the road before police chased them off.

”Some of them have guns and were shooting at us,” an officer, who declined to give his name, said in Mathare, a slum were tribal gangs have clashed previously.

Witnesses said a five-year-old boy was shot in the leg.

Also in Nairobi, a human rights activist chained himself to a gate outside police headquarters, but was quickly arrested.

In Kisumu, riot police fired in the air and struck at least one man as they battled youths who set up blazing roadblocks and gathered to protest.

”The police were shooting indiscriminately, targeting anyone in sight. My father was shot in the stomach,” witness Alphonse Otieno said by phone from Kisumu’s Kondele slum.

On Wednesday, police shot dead three people in Kisumu, saying they were attacked first. ODM spokesperson Salim Lone called one killing captured on local TV a ”cold-blooded execution”.

Also on Wednesday, TV footage showed police tear-gassing opposition leaders at two hotels, and then chasing them down Nairobi’s main Kenyatta Avenue. Odinga was near but stayed in his four-wheel drive truck, the footage showed.

The United States and former colonial power Britain have called on Kibaki’s government to let peaceful protests go ahead, and pressed the ODM to stop violence by its supporters.

They and 11 other nations have threatened to cut aid if the government’s commitment to ”good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights weakens”.

Government spokesperson Mutua said the threat was idle because Kenya was not dependent on aid like many of its African neighbours. Kenya gets less than 5% of its budget in aid.

”You are not here to threaten us,” Mutua said.

”We have gotten ourselves free from the yoke of neo-colonialism and dependency.” — Reuters