Kenya: Violence death toll passes 400

Opposition leader cancels planned nationwide protest rallies amid fears they could ignite new bloodletting.

kenya very good 224.88ap (photo credit: AP)
kenya very good 224.88ap
(photo credit: AP)
Kenya's opposition leader on Monday canceled planned nationwide protest rallies amid fears they could ignite new bloodletting after violence that has already killed nearly 500 people. Raila Odinga said he wanted to give mediation a chance, making the announcement at a news conference after meeting with US envoy Jendayi Frazer. The government of President Mwai Kibaki, accused by Odinga of stealing an election last month, had said the proposed Tuesday demonstrations were illegal and could provoke violence. Odinga noted Ghana's President John Kufuor, the current chairman of the African Union, was expected to arrive by Tuesday on a mediation mission. Kufuor's trip had been repeatedly delay as the government rejected outside mediation. "We are now sure that mediation will start. We have consulted and decided that the public rallies we called for are canceled," Odinga said. "We want the mediation to take place in a peaceful environment, that is why the rallies have been canceled." Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki have both expressed openness to some form of power sharing to resolve the crisis. Kibaki was declared winner of Dec. 27 elections after a vote tally that Odinga and international observers charged was flawed. In some areas, protests over Kibaki's victory have degenerated into ethnic rioting pitting other tribes against Kibaki's Kikuyu, long dominant in politics and the economy in Kenya. A statement Monday from the Ministry of Special Programs put the toll at 486 dead with some 255,000 people displaced from their homes. The toll was compiled by a special committee of humanitarian services set up by the government that toured areas most affected by riots and protests. Attempts to hold opposition rallies last week were blocked by police who fired tear gas, water cannons and live bullets over people's heads. Human rights groups accused police of excessive force and unjustified killings in the crisis, but police Commissioner Hussein Ali insisted Sunday that "We have not shot anyone." After US envoy Frazer won an offer from Kibaki to form a unity government, Odinga said Sunday he was willing to drop demands that Kibaki resign and was willing to discuss sharing power, but only through a mediator empowered to negotiate an agreement that the international community would guarantee. The opposition also has proposed an interim government be set up to hold new presidential elections. But Kibaki has said only a court could order fresh elections _ an unlikely event since he has packed the judiciary with his allies. It would be nearly impossible for Kibaki to govern without opposition support. In parliamentary elections held the same day as the presidential vote, Odinga's party won 95 of 210 legislative seats, and half of Kibaki's Cabinet lost their seats. It was a sign of people's anger over pervasive corruption and nepotism that favored Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, Kenya's former colonizer, had appealed Sunday for the two rivals to hold talks to end the deadlock over only the country's second free election since independence in 1963. The United States, Britain and the European Union all look to Kenya as an ally in the fight against terrorism, and the explosion of violence has damaged its image as a stable democracy and attraction for investors and tourists in a region rent by wars, uprisings and civil unrest. Thousands of tourists have canceled vacations at the beginning of the high season. "Hotels have been projecting an occupancy of 80-90 percent of capacity. But today, as we speak, that has dropped down to less than 40 percent. That's a huge loss for the economy," Mohammed Hersi, general manager of Whitesands Hotel in the coastal city of Mombasa, told the Associated Press. In Mombasa on Monday, police fired tear gas to scatter a few dozen protesters who gathered in the center of the tourist city yelling "No Raila, no peace!" Police also used tear gas to disperse protesters on Saturday. In the western Rift Valley that is Odinga's stronghold, thousands of Kikuyus fled their homes over the weekend in an exodus that continued Monday. They were escorted by soldiers down roads strewn with corpses and burned out vehicles. Tens of thousands of people are hungry, cut off from supplies as the crisis has closed down shops and transport across Kenya. What food is available has tripled in price. The United Nations tried to help Sunday, sending 20 truckloads of grain and vegetable oil that had been stuck in the port of Mombasa. Vigilante roadblocks and other insecurity had halted shipments.