January 28, 2008 / 7:09 AM / 12 years ago

Kenya's Rift Valley burns, death toll soars

(Updates death toll)

By Tim Cocks and David Lewis

NAIVASHA, Kenya, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Machete-wielding mobs faced off in Kenya’s Rift Valley on Monday and the death toll climbed to nearly 100 people in the latest bout of ethnic violence touched off by a disputed election.

The tit-for-tat violence complicated the task of former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who has asked both sides to name teams to negotiate an end to the electoral crisis that has laid bare the tribal undercurrents of Kenya’s politics.

In the normally peaceful Rift Valley town of Nakuru, a mortuary worker said 64 bodies were lying in the morgue, all victims of the past four days of ethnic fighting. In nearby Naivasha, a Reuters reporter saw 32 bodies in the morgue.

Groups from rival communities have been fighting each other with machetes, clubs, and bows and arrows in both towns, famous for their lakes teeming with wildlife.

In the worst incident of the latest flare-up, 19 people were burned to death locked inside a house in Naivasha on Sunday, police officer Grace Kakai told Reuters.

The nationwide death toll is now more than 800.

The violence since Kenya’s Dec. 27 election has taken on a momentum of its own, with cycles of killing and revenge between tribes who have never reconciled divisions left by British colonial policy, and exacerbated by politicians.

"What is alarming about the last few days is that there are evidently hidden hands organising it now. Militias are appearing ... the targeting is very specific," Britain’s Africa minister Mark Malloch Brown said on a visit to Kenya.

The government has for weeks accused the opposition of organising ethnic killings in the Rift and last week watchdog Human Rights Watch made the same accusation after having said police used excessive force in quelling opposition protests.

The opposition has retorted that police and criminal groups — in particular the outlawed Mungiki gang — have been dispatched against their supporters.

The number of 250,000 refugees, from one of Kenya’s darkest episodes since independence in 1963, looked certain to swell as thousands more fled the chaos in Naivasha and Nakuru.



RIVALRIES REVIVED

The dispute over President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election — which the opposition says was rigged — has plunged Kenya into a spiral of violence, battering its image as an east African trade and tourism hub and one of the continent’s more stable nations.

In Naivasha, a 1,000-strong group of mainly Kikuyus brandishing axes, sticks, machetes and hammers confronted several hundred Luos — some also armed — who wanted safe passage out of town, a Reuters witness said.

A handful of riot police kept the groups apart as they threw rocks at each other near the Lake Naivasha Country Club, and a military helicopter kept watch from above.

"We want these Luos to go back home. They chased and killed our people. Now we want the same thing to happen to them," said Kikuyu protester Joseph Maina, holding a plank of wood.

Internal Security Minister George Saitoti arrived later and was booed loudly when he urged people to drop their weapons: "We shall not tolerate any kind of disorder in the country ... we will treat Kenyans as Kenyans, not as tribes."

Police said 254 arrests were made overnight, but many Kenyans say they have failed to stop the unrest.

In the pro-opposition western town of Kisumu on Monday, police fired teargas and bullets in the air as several thousand people took to the streets over the deaths of members of their Luo ethnic community in the Rift Valley.

Residents said angry Luos burned two Kikuyus in their homes in a Kisumu slum, and police shot two people dead.

Post-election violence has taken two distinct forms, one of which involved a police crackdown on banned opposition protests over the tally of the vote, which observers said was flawed.

The second is the revival by politicians of ethnic rivalries over land, business and power dating from before independence, a tactic that has caused bloodshed at all but one of Kenya’s elections since multi-party democracy returned in 1992.

Negotiators led by Annan have told the rival camps of Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to draw up teams of four each and study a blueprint for further talks in the next 24 hours.

An official close to the mediation said there was support on Annan’s team for deploying Kenya’s military in a humanitarian capacity and to reduce the threat of insecurity. (Additional reporting by Wangui Kanina, Andrew Cawthorne, George Murage, Guled Mohamed, Nick Tattersall and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bryson Hull; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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