/ 24 January 2008

Kenya opposition calls off protests

Kenya’s opposition on Wednesday called off mass rallies scheduled for Thursday to protest disputed presidential polls. This was at the request of former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, who is in Kenya to mediate the crisis.

Police had banned the rallies that were due to follow three days of opposition protests last week, which sparked clashes that killed about 80 people, bringing the overall death toll since the December 27 election to more than 780. Other reports have put the death toll at more than 650.

Annan was in Nairobi in the latest attempt to mediate the turmoil sparked by the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki last month.

”At the request of Mr Annan, we called off the mass action scheduled for tomorrow [Thursday], but that does not mean that we cannot call a new round of mass actions,” said Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) spokesperson Salim Lone.

The former UN chief met earlier with ODM leader Raila Odinga, who claims he was robbed of the presidency.

”It was a two-hour meeting that was useful and very constructive. It is going to be very tough negotiations, but we are determined to do everything to make it [reaching an agreement] happen since the future of this country is at stake,” Lone said.

A separate meeting between Annan and Kibaki was delayed until Thursday, government spokesperson Alfred Mutua said.

”We hope that Kofi Annan and team manages to see Mr Kibaki tomorrow [Thursday],” said top ODM official Willam Ruto.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, however, did meet on Wednesday with Kibaki. He was among the first leaders to recognise Kibaki’s legitimacy after the contested poll.

Several international attempts to bring the two sides into face-to-face talks have so far failed, as clashes continue.

Bullets and tear gas

Riot police earlier fired bullets in the air and tear gas at an opposition funeral procession, sparking running battles and resulting in the razing of a telecommunications exchange centre.

Odinga, who fled the scene after the latest disturbance in the Kenyan capital, said the government went too far by assaulting mourners.

This ”government first committed the unforgivable crime of stealing the vote, it then kills those who protest, and finally, when people come to mourn the departed, it assaults them as well”, Odinga said in a statement.

”This latest attack on a peaceful gathering shows that this government is running amok … To assault peacefully gathered mourners is a terrible crime, made much worse when the people’s leaders, including the winner of the presidential election, are the targets,” the statement added.

Six people were killed late on Tuesday in western Kenya, and another man in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, police said. The two areas have seen the worst violence since the December elections.

Before his first talks with Kenya’s feuding factions, Annan said he had no miracle answer to the unrest.

Meanwhile, Odinga said in an interview with German public television ARD broadcast on Wednesday that he was ready to share power with Kibaki.

”We are prepared to share power with him. He would remain president and we would take the prime minister’s job,” Odinga said, but he added that cooperation ”depends on certain conditions”.

The Constitution of Kenya would need to be changed to create the post of prime minister, and Odinga’s ODM in Nairobi said the comments had been taken out of context.

”What they are saying is false … This was a long interview and in that, they decided to pick out what they wanted that was totally out of context,” ODM press secretary Anthony Gachoka said.

About 260 000 people have fled their homes because of the post-poll violence, which has broken Kenya’s image as a haven of stability in the region and dealt a huge blow to East Africa’s biggest economy.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council on Tuesday condemned ”gross violations of human rights” in Kenya and called for an investigation, which was also supported by the UN.

”The killings have to be investigated expeditiously and impartially, and anyone found responsible for human rights abuses must be brought to justice,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said in a statement.

The World Bank and African Development Bank said they would review funding to Kenya if leaders fail to halt the crisis.

Hundreds of villagers on Wednesday fled their homes in Molo, western Kenya.

Witnesses said most of those leaving were from Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group. — AFP