February 21, 2008 / 8:49 PM / 12 years ago

Kenya athletes deny helping Rift Valley killings

By Jack Oyoo and Andrew Cawthorne

NAIROBI, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Senior members of Kenya’s athletics fraternity reacted indignantly on Thursday to an accusation they funded some of the worst post-election violence in the Rift Valley area.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report on Kenya’s crisis that athletes — who have become wealthy local celebrities thanks to their winnings on the international circuit — may have sponsored the killers.

"Several informed sources suggest these groups now have wealthy athletes as new benefactors," it said.

Athletics Kenya chairman Isaiah Kiplagat said that far from promoting violence, Rift Valley athletes were known for their involvement in local competitions promoting peace.

"I am sure no single athlete was involved in promoting violence as reported," Kiplagat said.

"They are busy training for coming competitions and they would not have that time for those things. In fact, as we speak, many are abroad training because of the problems here."

After President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election in a Dec. 27 vote, pro-opposition gangs from the local Kalenjin community targeted members of his Kikuyu tribe there.

Thousands of homes were burned and hundreds of people died, most hacked by machetes or pierced by arrows.

Former world marathon record holder Paul Tergat said the ICG allegation sounded far-fetched.

"I don’t have the nitty-gritty of the flare-up, but I am sure that no athlete would want to finance or promote violence," he told Reuters from a training camp in Abu Dhabi.

"That would be contrary to all the principles that sportsmanship entails."

Tergat, 39, is Kenya’s best-known athlete and an air force officer. He said he was on a four-month training assignment with the military during the Rift Valley troubles.

Among the 1,000 people killed were two well-known athletes — 1988 Olympics 4x400 relay finalist Lucas Sang and marathon runner Wesley Ngetich.

Ngetich was killed by a poisoned arrow during inter-ethnic fighting near the famous Maasai Mara game reserve.

Sang’s friends said he was stoned to death by a mob which then burned his corpse in Eldoret town in the Rift Valley.

ICG said Sang might have been leading violence at the time.

"There are various accounts of how Lucas Sang, an athlete and ex-army corporal, died, but most accounts suggest he met death on the outskirts of Eldoret while commanding part of a Kalenjin raiding party," the ICG report said.

The think-tank said athletes from the Rift Valley had made fortunes from their success and "transformed some of the depressed and sleepy rural villages in the region by investing in farmland and other real estate".

The Rift Valley area has produced a stream of top athletes who benefit from the high altitude when they run at sea level. The area has become an important training location for local and international runners. (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Robert Woodward)

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