NAIROBI (Reuters) - Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan brought together Kenya’s political rivals on Tuesday in a push to end a post-election crisis and deepening tribal bloodshed.
About a dozen people were killed in the east African country on Tuesday, bringing the toll to more than 850 since President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed December 27 election triggered turmoil that has grown from riots into waves of ethnic revenge attacks.
Annan, bringing together Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to launch formal mediation, said he was confident the “immediate political issues” could be resolved within four weeks and the broader issues underlying the crisis within a year.
“To the leaders gathered here today I say that the people want you to take charge of the situation and do whatever possible to halt the downward spiral that is threatening this beautiful and prosperous country,” Annan said.
The crisis has cost Kenya its reputation as a bastion of peace in a turbulent region and dented its previously flourishing economy, east Africa’s largest.
“We stand here during a defining moment, when we must all make the decision that we must regain the dignity of our nation and restore the stability we have enjoyed since independence,” Kibaki said.
Odinga, who says Kibaki stole the vote, said the most urgent issue was addressing “the deeply flawed results of the presidential elections”.
“This mediation process must show our people that peace, justice and security are around the corner,” he said, stressing that the talks were between his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party and Kibaki’s party, not his government.
Later, Kibaki, Odinga and Annan chatted cordially over a cup of tea while negotiating teams met behind closed doors. Kibaki and Odinga met last Thursday for the first time since the vote.
Their teams, a mix of both hardliners and moderates, were due to meet again on Wednesday and the stakes are high.
“If they do not come together, this country is going up in flames and I don’t think either want to be judged by history as responsible,” said Yusuf Hassan, a legislative candidate from a government-allied party whose election is due to be re-run.
Western donors have urged both sides — who appear far apart — to take the talks seriously or risk losing development aid.
“We are certainly asking everyone to maintain calm. It’s deeply concerning,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington. “The election was not one that inspired confidence in the Kenyan people and therefore there needs to be a political arrangement.”
Post-election protests have degenerated into cycles of killing between tribes who have never reconciled divisions over land, wealth and power left by British colonial rule, stoked by politicians at election time over 44 years of independence.
The killing of an opposition legislator stoked the violence on Tuesday. Kibaki appealed for peace and promised a swift investigation into the “heinous” murder of Melitus Were, who was shot dead while driving up to the gate of his home.
Local media reported three people had been arrested, but police spokesman Eric Kiraithe declined to comment.
Noting that two bullets went into Were’s eyes, Odinga called it “a planned political assassination”. He also said that Kenya was “drifting into a state of anarchy”.
The European Union condemned Were’s murder and urged the government and opposition to “engage fully” with Annan.
“We condemn the massive human rights abuses and systematic violence being perpetrated in Kenya,” EU High Representative Javier Solana and Development, Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said in a statement.
After meeting in London, leaders of Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the European Commission issued a statement welcoming Annan’s achievement in bringing the two sides together.
“We call on Kenya’s leaders to pursue this dialogue urgently,” it said. “We urge all leaders to act urgently to ensure the cycle of violence is quickly brought to an end.”
Reuters reporters in the lakeside city of Naivasha said military helicopters dive-bombed armed mobs, firing what police said were rubber bullets at about 600 Kikuyus — Kibaki’s ethnic group — brandishing machetes and clubs at Luos, Odinga’s tribe.
Nine more bodies arrived at the Naivasha morgue on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll from violence there and in nearby Nakuru since Thursday to more than 100.
Kenya’s Red Cross said 8,000 people were taking refuge at a Naivasha police post, joining the 250,000 forced out of their homes by ethnic violence mostly in the rest of the Rift Valley.
At Were’s house in a middle-class suburb near Nairobi’s Kibera slum, riot police fired tear gas to disperse mourners and supporters, some of whom had taunted officers. Ethnic fighting broke out in Kibera within hours, and later in Dandora slum.
A Reuters witness in Kibera saw seven corpses. One man lay in agony after being forcibly circumcised, before dying.
Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Jack Kimball, Bryson Hull, Joseph Sudah, Duncan Miriri, Helen Nyambura, George Obulutsa, Wangui Kanina and Nick Tattersall, David Lewis in Naivasha; writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bryson Hull; editing by Andrew Roche