Rice to visit Kenya on February 18 in peace drive

President George Bush, ahead of a trip to Africa, said on Thursday he asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go to Kenya with a message that there must be a full return to democracy.

Kenya’s feuding political parties adjourned talks for the weekend, dashing chief mediator Kofi Annan’s hopes to have a final political settlement this week to the post-election crisis.

Annan has led efforts to end the turmoil triggered by President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed December 27 re-election. Post-election clashes have killed at least 1 000 people.

”In Kenya we’re backing the efforts of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan to end the crisis,” Bush said in a speech on Africa.

The State Department said Rice planned to travel to Nairobi on Monday.

Rice was expected to accompany Bush on his trip to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia, but Bush said he was prepared to delay the Friday departure to press Congress to pass domestic spying legislation.

”And when we’re on the continent I’ve asked Condi Rice … to travel to Kenya to support the work of the former secretary general and to deliver a message directly to Kenya’s leaders and people: there must be an immediate halt to violence, there must be justice for the victims of abuse and there must be a full return to democracy,” Bush said.

State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said Rice planned to go to Kenya whether or not some kind of deal between the feuding parties was struck there in the meantime.

”We would all like to see a deal as soon as possible,” he said. ”I think in either case she plans to go.”

Rice would see Kibaki as well as opposition leader Raila Odinga, and may meet other civil society leaders as well, but would take her lead from Annan, McCormack said.

”She is going there to support the effort of former secretary general Kofi Annan to mediate, to bring about a solution to the political crisis in that country, that has existed for several weeks, and resulted in far, far too many innocent lives being lost,” McCormack said.

The State Department said in a statement later that Rice hoped to help Kenya ”regain its role as a democratically and economically robust regional leader”.

Salim Lone, a spokesperson for Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, welcomed Rice’s trip and said his party was ”greatly encouraged by the US determination to take the lead” over the issue of free and fair elections.

The visit showed growing US awareness that ”international pressure is essential to ensure that Mr Kofi Annan’s mission succeeds if we are to avert a disaster in Kenya,” Lone said in a statement distributed at the United Nations. – Reuters

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