NAIROBI (Reuters) - A mob torched a Kenyan church on Tuesday, killing about 30 villagers cowering inside, as the death toll from ethnic riots triggered by President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election approached 250.
Fire engulfed a church near Eldoret town where hundreds of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe had taken refuge in fear of their lives. Witnesses said charred bodies, including women and children, were strewn about the smoldering ruins.
“This is the first time in history that any group has attacked a church. We never expected the savagery to go so far,” police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said.
Kibaki was sworn in on Sunday after official election results showed he narrowly beat opposition leader Raila Odinga. Both sides have accused the other of massive vote-rigging during the December 27 election.
The dispute ignited long-simmering tribal rivalries in one of Africa’s most stable democracies and strongest economies.
World powers called for calm and urged the political opponents to “exercise restraint” and talk to each other.
Police and a senior security official said the blaze at the Kenya Assemblies of God Pentecostal church in western Kenya was deliberately started by a gang of youths.
Television pictures shot from a helicopter showed plumes of white smoke pouring from burning homesteads in the area. Young men, some toting bows and arrows, manned roadblocks.
Residents and a security source said the victims had sought safety at the small church, about 8 km (5 miles) from Eldoret.
“Some youths came to the church,” said a local reporter from the scene. “They fought with the boys who were guarding it, but they were overpowered and the youths set fire to the church.”
Local media said 20 people suffered life-threatening burns.
The attack revived traumatic memories in east Africa of the slaughter in churches of tens of thousands of victims of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, and the mass suicide of hundreds of Ugandan cult members in a church fire in 2000.
Police said more than 70,000 people had been displaced nationwide and about 170 killed. Reuters reporters around Kenya estimated the death toll at around 250.
Leading local newspaper, the Daily Nation, feared the country was on “the verge of a complete meltdown”. Fuel prices rose sharply in Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi, all of which get petrol, diesel and other products from Kenyan ports.
Police were out in force in the capital on New Year’s Day and Nairobi’s streets were initially quieter, before violence erupted in the slums again as dusk fell.
Ghana’s President John Kufor, the chairman of the African Union (AU), is due in Kenya on Wednesday to meet Kibaki and “discuss the current crisis”, an AU spokesman said.
Washington had first congratulated Kibaki, then switched to expressing “concerns about irregularities”. Former colonial power Britain, the European Union and others pointedly avoided congratulating Kibaki. Instead, they expressed concern, urged reconciliation and a probe into suspected voting irregularities.
“The 2007 general elections have fallen short of key international and regional standards for democratic elections,” the EU observer mission said in its formal assessment.
Western diplomats shuttled between both sides, trying to start mediation. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Kibaki and his opposition rival Raila Odinga.
“The government thinks they can wait this out, but we’re not convinced,” one diplomat in Nairobi told Reuters.
The Eldoret area where the church massacre took place is multi-ethnic but traditionally dominated by the Kalenjin tribe.
It suffered ethnic violence in 1992 and 1997 when hundreds of mainly Kikuyus were killed and thousands more displaced.
A senior security official in Rift Valley said that as many as 15,000 people were now sheltering from the violence in churches and police stations in Eldoret.
He blamed the opposition for incitement.
“We have lived together for years, we’ve intermarried, we have children, but now they’ve asked them to turn against them,” the security official said. “We don’t do this in Kenya. It is what happens in Yugoslavia and Sudan.”
An Irish Catholic priest in Eldoret, Father Paul Brennan, told Reuters vigilante gangs were roaming the streets.
“Houses are being burned. It is too dangerous to go outside and count the dead,” he said. “The churches are full. There are four to five thousand in the main cathedral.”
Most deaths have come from police firing at protesters, witnesses say, prompting accusations from rights groups and the opposition that Kibaki had made Kenya a “police state”.
Additional reporting by Nicolo Gnecchi, Duncan Miriri, Helen Nyambura-Mwaura, Patrick Muiruri, Bryson Hull, Florence Muchori, Joseph Sudah, Andrew Cawthorne; Guled Mohamed in Kisumu; and Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa