THE HAGUE/NAIROBI (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court prosecutor named three Kenyan cabinet ministers and a former police chief on Wednesday among six suspects behind the east African country's post-election violence in 2008.
The widely awaited announcement has the potential to destabilize Kenya's fragile coalition, or unity government, which was formed by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to end the bloodshed and restore stability.
Prominent among the six suspects were finance minister and deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding father Jomo Kenyatta, and William Ruto, the higher education minister who has been suspended to fight a corruption case.
More than 1,220 people died and 350,000 were displaced in the mayhem that followed the December 2007 election, severely damaging Kenya's reputation for stability in a turbulent region.
Moreno-Ocampo said he was pursuing Kenyatta, Ruto, industrialization minister Henry Kosgey and former police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali, radio executive Joshua arap Sang, and cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura.
Charges include murder, forcible transfer of population, political persecution, torture and rape.
Five of the suspects -- Kenyatta, Ruto, Kosgey, Muthaura and Sang -- said on Wednesday they would go voluntarily to The Hague as they were confident they could clear their names. Ali could not immediately be reached for comment.
Kibaki said he would take no action yet against the suspects because the ICC case was nowhere near completed.
"They therefore cannot be judged as guilty until the charges are confirmed by the court. Calls for action to be taken against them are therefore prejudicial, pre-emptive and against the rules of natural justice," Kibaki said in a statement.
Moreno-Ocampo said that if the suspects did not appear voluntarily, arrest warrants would be sought.
"These are the names of the people we think should face justice. They are still innocent, we are just presenting the prosecutor's evidence," Moreno-Ocampo said.
He added that a summons would give the suspects a chance to present to ICC judges their own arguments, but stressed there were conditions involved.
"They cannot be involved in the commission of new crimes, they cannot interfere with the investigation. They cannot threaten witnesses, they cannot bribe witnesses. If we find they are doing that we will request an arrest warrant (for) them."
The prosecutor said that in early December 2007, Ruto and Kosgey, both members of the Orange Democratic Movement party, began preparing "a criminal plan" to attack supporters of the rival Party of National Unity, particularly in the Rift Valley. He said Sang helped in the planning and conveyed messages.
In late December, thousands of the network's members started a coordinated attack on different places, using transport and weapons provided by the organisers, Moreno-Ocampo said.
"They started to burn down homes, to kill people and systematically forcibly displace these people from their homes," Moreno-Ocampo said. "In the response to this attack, members of the government also committed crimes."
Moreno-Ocampo said Muthaura authorized the police to use excessive force against civilians, resulting in shootings and killings, and that Kenyatta was pivotal in helping to facilitate uprisings of other groups.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Kenya had made "tremendous progress" since the "dark days" that followed the 2008 election.
"Kenya is turning a page in its history, moving away from impunity and divisionism toward an era of accountability and equal opportunity," said Obama, whose father was Kenyan.
"The path ahead is not easy, but I believe that the Kenyan people have the courage and resolve to reject those who would drag the country back into the past and rob Kenyans of the singular opportunity that is before them to realize the country's vast potential," he said in a statement.
The ICC announcement was welcomed by Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based group. "Today certainly brings justice a step closer," HRW's Elizabeth Evenson said, adding it should send "a powerful message" to Kenya that it can break with the past. Violence around the 1992 and 1997 elections went unpunished.
"These are senior leaders. It is very significant that charges are being sought at that high level and shows the efforts of the prosecutor to connect the dots at a local level and the responsibility on a national level," Evenson said.
But some Kenyans thought the prosecutor should have gone further.
"We expected more ministers who sponsored the violence to be on the list but Ocampo has come up with a list that is wanting," said Beatrice Nyokabi, who was forced to flee her home.
"The powerful and mighty should have been summoned so that impunity in this country can end."
The ICC case is intended to act as a deterrent against violence in future elections, next due in 2012, demonstrating that politicians who instigate mayhem will be punished.
Kenyan financial markets did not react to the announcement from The Hague. Traders were watching in case there was any violent reaction to the news.
Editing by Sara Webb/Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich