CHEPTAIS, Kenya (Reuters) - Hundreds of Kenyans fled the remote Mount Elgon region on Tuesday and several people have been killed as army helicopters attacked a small rebel militia for the second day, witnesses and a legislator said.
A Reuters witness saw at least 300 people escaping the area, where helicopters have strafed the foothills and hundreds of heavily-armed soldiers have poured into the forest since Monday, to flush out the little-known Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF).
The Mount Elgon violence preceded a wave of ethnic killings around Kenya over President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election in December — but it shares some of the root causes like tribal tensions and resentment over land distribution.
“The helicopters were firing next to the village throughout the morning. It was unbearable,” one farmer told Reuters as he fled out of the area beyond the army cordon into Cheptais town.
Journalists and aid workers have been barred from the conflict area, which has fertile farmland, is famous for its elephant herds and lies near the border with Uganda.
A local legislator said several people had been killed, though the toll could be higher.
“I understand three or four people have been killed ... The area is inaccessible due to the terrain and these guys are dropping bombs so it is very difficult to know the number,” Mount Elgon member of parliament (MP) Fred Kapondi said.
He criticized the government’s tactics as heavy-handed.
“What the government is doing to people here is inhuman. They are pounding on traumatized children and mothers. The March planting has been disrupted so now there will be no food ... This operation must be stopped,” Kapondi told Reuters.
More than 500 people have been killed and 60,000 have fled clashes in the area over the last 18 months.
Allocation of government land in mid-2006 unleashed fighting between the Ndorobo and Soy clans of the Sabaot ethnic group.
Opponents say the land was divided corruptly and favored the Ndorobos and government supporters, at the expense of the more numerous Soy, some of whom were evicted from areas they had farmed for 30 years. The SLDF group is mainly Soy.
(Additional reporting by Wangui Kanina)
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jack Kimball and Jon Boyle)
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