Ethnic clashes escalate in Kenya; 19 burned to death in house

The Baltimore Sun

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Ethnically driven violence intensified in Kenya yesterday, and police officials said at least 19 people, including 11 children, were burned to death in a house by a mob.

The country seems to be becoming increasingly unhinged, with even the Kenyan military, deployed for the first time, unable to stop the wave of revenge killings.

More than 100 people have been killed in the past four days, many of them shot with arrows, burned or hacked with machetes.

It is some of the worst fighting since a disputed election in December ignited long-simmering tensions that have so far claimed at least 750 lives. The fighting appeared to be spreading yesterday across the Rift Valley region, a particularly picturesque part of Kenya known more for its game parks and fancy lodges.

The Kenyan government is now threatening to arrest top opposition leaders on suspicion of orchestrating the bloodshed, but opposition leaders are in turn accusing the government of backing criminal gangs.

According to police officials in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, fighting erupted yesterday morning between gangs of Kikuyus and Luos, two of Kenya's biggest ethnic groups, who have clashed across the country since the election. Witnesses said that mobs threw flaming tires and mountains of rocks into the streets to block police officers from entering some neighborhoods. The mobs then went house to house, looking for certain people.

Grace Kakai, a police commander in Naivasha, said a large crowd of Kikuyus chased a group of Luos through a slum, trapped them in a house, blocked the doors and set the house afire. Police found 19 bodies huddled in one room, and Kakai said that some of the children's bodies were so badly burned that they could not be identified.

The incident was similar to one on Jan. 1, when as many as 50 women and children seeking shelter in a church in another Rift Valley town were burned to death by a mob. The victims in that case were mostly Kikuyus, and Kikuyus across the country seem to have been attacked more than any other group.

In the past few days, many Kikuyus have organized into militias, saying they are now ready for revenge.

"The situation is very bad," Kakai said. "People are fighting each other and trying to drive them out of the area. We have to evacuate people."

Thousands of families are streaming out of Naivasha, Nakuru, Molo, Eldoret and other towns across the Rift Valley. The region is home to supporters of both Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's president, and Raila Odinga, the top opposition leader, and the site of historic land disputes among members of rival ethnic groups.

Kibaki is a Kikuyu and Odinga is a Luo, and the disputed election, in which Kibaki was declared the winner by a narrow margin despite widespread evidence of vote rigging, set off the ethnically driven violence.

The Kenya of today is almost unrecognizable compared with the Kenya that until recently was celebrated as one of the most stable and promising countries on the African continent. Local television stations last night showed menacing young men waving machetes and iron bars at roadblocks along one of the country's busiest highways. The men threw rocks at buses, with one large bus run off the road, as police officers stood by.

The Kenyan army was assigned early this month to help evacuate people from conflict zones, but on Friday, for the first time, soldiers were ordered to intervene between warring groups. That did not seem to make much of a difference, and witnesses said the soldiers had been as ineffective as the police.

A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in several Rift Valley towns, including Naivasha and Nakuru, but witnesses said that violence continued to rage in the countryside, with bands of armed men burning down huts and attacking ethnic rivals.

Many Kenyans have said that the most distressing aspect is that the opposing politicians, instead of cooperating to stop the bloodshed, continue to bicker over who started it.

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