/ 6 February 2008

Kenya talks resume as regional ministers arrive

Kenya’s political rivals resumed crisis talks on Wednesday despite preparations for a meeting of East African foreign ministers which has angered opposition leaders.

The opposition has threatened more street protests if the government chairs Thursday’s planned meeting of the regional body Igad, which is headed by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki.

The opposition, which accuses Kibaki of rigging the December 27 elections, says chairing the meeting would legitimise Kibaki’s position ”through the back door”.

But former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, who is mediating between the foes about a disputed election, said there would be no mass action while talks continued.

Some ministers from the seven-nation bloc arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said.

”If they government goes ahead and holds the Igad meeting, we will protest peacefully. We will march, carry placards, show our messages,” one opposition official said.

Kenyan police have banned all protests since the polls, and earlier demonstrations have triggered violence and looting.

What started as a dispute over President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election has since laid bare divisions over land, wealth and power that date from colonial rule and have since been stoked by politicians.

More than a thousand people have been killed and about 300 000 displaced in one of Kenya’s darkest moments since its independence from Britain 44 years ago.

Most of the deaths have come from cycles of ethnic killings, adding to protesters shot dead by the security forces.

On Tuesday, Annan said the opposition had been wrong to threaten more protests while talks were ongoing under the terms of an mediation agreement signed up to by both sides.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) says Kibaki’s team rigged the vote and has insisted on external mediation. That led to Annan’s mission which has so far produced commitments to end violence and help the displaced.

On Tuesday, Annan pushed the two sides to focus on the third item on their agenda — the political crisis ignited by the disputed election results.

International observers have said the vote counting was so chaotic that it was impossible to tell who won.

The government says Kibaki was elected fairly and has pressed that position through African diplomatic channels including the African Union and Igad, where it has goodwill from its role brokering peace for Somalia and Sudan.

The bloodshed has damaged Kenya’s image as a stable and prosperous nation in a turbulent part of the continent, and seriously harmed the economic boom Kibaki won wide credit for nurturing with a business-friendly approach.

Business leaders met Annan on Tuesday and urged action to stop the downward slide that has seen the currency drop at one point to near a three-year low, slammed the $1-billion-a-year tourism industry and choked exports. – Reuters