January 31, 2008 / 12:48 AM / 10 years ago

U.N.'s Ban throws weight behind Kenya peace drive

NAIROBI (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon throws his heavyweight diplomatic clout on Friday behind efforts to end Kenya’s month-long violent political standoff in which at least 850 people have been killed.

<p>An opposition supporter runs near a burning ambulance during a protest in Kisumu, western Kenya, as a police officer shot dead an opposition legislator on January 31, 2008, the second killed in a week, sparking fresh protests and interrupting talks to try to end more than a month of violence. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

African leaders at a summit in neighboring Ethiopia attended by the U.N. head have called for urgent action to stop the bloodletting, which has turned one of the continent’s more stable nations into its most pressing crisis.

Ban would fly to Kenya to meet predecessor Kofi Annan, who has been spearheading mediation efforts in Nairobi, as well as opposition leader Raila Odinga and civil society representatives during a visit of a few hours, U.N. officials said.

He told the 53-nation African Union summit on Thursday the violence in Kenya threatened to “escalate to catastrophic levels” and called on President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga to do everything possible to resolve the crisis.

“The aim of the visit is to offer support to the Annan-led panel and be briefed by the U.N. country team on the humanitarian crisis,” a U.N. official in Nairobi said.

South Africa said influential business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa would also join the mediation efforts on Friday. Ramaphosa was chief negotiator for the African National Congress in talks that produced a peaceful end to apartheid in 1994.

Kenya descended into a spiral of political and ethnic killing after Kibaki’s disputed re-election on December 27. Odinga says Kibaki stole the vote, while international observers said the count was so chaotic it was impossible to tell who won.

TRIBAL DIVISIONS

<p>Opposition supporters burn vehicles and block the road during a protest in Kisumu, western Kenya, as a police officer shot dead an opposition legislator on January 31, 2008, the second killed in a week, sparking fresh protests and interrupting talks to try to end more than a month of violence. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

The unrest has taken the lid off decades-old divisions between tribal groupings over land, wealth and power, dating from British colonial rule and stoked by Kenyan politicians during 44 years of independence.

The United States and European countries have pledged their support for Annan’s mediation efforts. Donors have said aid programs to Kenya are under review.

Slideshow (26 Images)

A group of mostly European donors has suspended future payments on a good governance and law enforcement program in light of the current crisis, Denmark’s ambassador to Kenya Bo Jensen said.

Many in the country fear what will happen if Annan fails to clinch some sort of power-sharing deal.

Fresh protests, in which witnesses said at least two people were killed, broke out on Thursday after a police officer in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret shot dead an opposition legislator, the second killed in a week.

Police have said they are treating the killing as a “crime of passion” rather than a political act, but Odinga condemned it as a deliberate assassination.

Soldiers fired into the air to disperse angry mobs in Eldoret after the MP’s killing. Protests also erupted in the pro-opposition western town of Kisumu, where youths burned tires and blocked roads with piles of rocks.

Kibaki has said the security forces are under strict orders to take firm action against anyone inciting violence. Odinga has accused him of ordering a shoot-to-kill policy.

Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip in New York and Lesley Wroughton in Addis Ababa

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