FBI chief says Kenya must fight corruption

NAIROBI, March 5 (Reuters) - Kenya must fight the corruption that is threatening democracy in east Africa's biggest economy, the head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Thursday.

Washington wants to promote democracy and accountable government in Kenya, which it sees as a rare island of relative stability in an otherwise volatile region.

Kenya was rocked by post-election violence at the start of last year and a string of major graft scandals have emerged since then.

"We discussed what could be described as the unhealthy climate of impunity here in Kenya and steps that can be taken to investigate and to prosecute public corruption," said FBI Director Robert Mueller after a private meeting with Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

In rare comments to reporters, the FBI director said one area he touched on with Odinga was the crucial role played by his organisation in tackling graft cases in the United States.

"In the wake of September 11 we had counterterrorism challenges and we had to prioritise," Mueller said.

"The number one priority for the FBI in the United States was addressing public corruption, because public corruption goes to the heart of a democracy."

Many Kenyans have been angered by fresh multi-million dollar graft scandals in the country's oil and maize sectors, even as an acute drought forces a third of the population into hunger.

One former anti-corruption adviser to the government says a graft "free-for-all" is the glue holding together Kenya's "grand coalition" administration, which was patched together last April to end post-election violence that killed 1,300 people.

"It is absolutely essential to any democracy that addressing public corruption be very high on the list of priorities for the investigative and prosecutive agencies," Mueller said.

Kenya, sandwiched between the chaotic Horn of Africa and turbulent Great Lakes region, was the target of Al Qaeda-linked extremists who blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and in Tanzania in 1998.

And U.S. officials fear neighbouring Somalia could become a haven for other Islamic radicals. (Editing by Jon Boyle)