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Police fire tear gas at Kibaki supporters

world Updated: Jan 22, 2008 17:03 IST
Nick Tattersall

Police fired tear gas on Tuesday to disperse supporters of President Mwai Kibaki before former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan starts mediating in the standoff over Kenya's election that has caused weeks of unrest.

Several hours before Annan was due to arrive in Kenya, riot police scattered about 100 pro-government supporters who had been chanting "Lead on, Kibaki!" in Nairobi's central business district. The police forced them into shops and nearby alleys.

"We just want Kibaki ... The opposition has to recognise he is president," market trader Julius Kuria, 32, said among a panicked crowd of protesters engulfed by teargas.

Police have banned street protests since the election, almost all of which have been by the opposition.

The east African nation descended into chaos after Kibaki's disputed re-election on December 27 in which opposition leader Raila Odinga cried foul. More than 650 people have been killed since then in ethnic violence and clashes with the security forces.

The government and opposition accuse each other of genocide.

Kibaki and Odinga have not met despite pressure from Western powers such as the United States, Britain and the European Union.

Veteran negotiator Annan is due to meet the rival sides and push for direct negotiations, a step which this month eluded Hganaian President John Kufuor, the head of the African Union.

"Short of getting them both in chokehold and banging their heads together, Mr Annan has very little leverage on either President Kibaki and Mr Odinga or their respective entourages of myopic warmongers and sycophants," columnist Macharia Gaitho wrote in the Daily Nation, Kenya's leading newspaper.

But diplomats hope Annan, a Nobel Peace laureate whose negotiating experience ranges from Israel to Darfur, can help bring Kibaki and Odinga into some sort of power-sharing arrangement, possibly before a fresh vote.

"They just need some time to cool down their nerves. I think they will talk and find solutions to their problems," former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, who has also tried to mediate in the Kenyan crisis, told Reuters in an interview.

Teargas and machetes

Weeks of bloodletting in a nation long seen as one of east Africa's most stable and economically promising has undermined its democratic credentials and laid bare the underlying tribal sentiments behind its politics.

Scenes of police firing tear gas and live ammunition in the slums of Nairobi, or of bloodied victims of machete and spear attacks in its picturesque Rift Valley, have damaged its image as a tourist haven and regional aid and trade hub.

Some outside attempts to get involved in the crisis have met a prickly reception.

The government has taken out full-page adverts in newspapers slamming Western powers, the international media and rights groups for fanning unrest by questioning the election result.

It also summoned British High Commissioner Adam Wood on Monday to voice anger at Britain's critical stance.

US ambassador Michael Ranneberger issued a strong statement which was published in Kenyan newspapers on Tuesday dismissing the adverts as "scurrilous propaganda".

"There is compelling evidence of serious irregularities in the vote tallying process from a wide variety of non-partisan sources," he said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was also due in Nairobi on Tuesday to try to mediate, although as one of few African leaders to have congratulated Kibaki on his win, his efforts have already been met with scorn by opposition supporters.

"Museveni leave Kenyans alone," read one banner in the Nairobi slum of Kibera during a recent protest.

Britain has eased advice warning citizens not to travel to Kenya, but still cautions against travel to a swathe of the country including parts of Nairobi and the tourist hub Mombasa.

The opposition has called for further protests to start on Thursday and the government says it is determined not to allow them, raising fears of a fresh round of violence.