Thursday, January 3, 2008

Kenyan march hit with tear gas

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- Tear gas and water cannon were fired at opposition supporters gathering for a banned rally in Nairobi as tension mounted in the Kenyan capital following days of brutal post-election violence.

Supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga gather for a rally at Uhuru Park.

1 of 2 more photos » Opposition leader Raila Odinga called the meeting despite a government ban on such gatherings, having been forced to abandon his first attempt on Monday soon after the onset of the conflict.

Meanwhile, there were sporadic reports of violence, looting and fires in Nairobi's sprawling slums.

"All Kenyans are invited to Uhuru Park," a statement on Odinga's campaign Web site said ahead of the rally, as party officials expected at least a million people to attend.

The crowds were gathering as Archbishop Desmond Tutu began meeting with opposition officials, including Odinga, in an effort to mediate the election dispute.

It was not immediately clear if the Nobel laureate would also talk with President Mwai Kibaki's party. A government spokesman said a meeting could be arranged with Tutu if it would help with the process.

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"People are telling us the march is on," journalist David McKenzie said from the Nairobi slum of Kibera, as residents began streaming out of neighborhoods and toward the center of town.

"There are fewer protesters here than there are guards," McKenzie reported. "But earlier, tear gas was thrown at them, and then there were running battles up and down the street ... with water cannon spraying and dispersing the people here."

There were also reports of government troops firing live rounds above protesters' heads, as the smoke of tires being burned in protest began to choke the air over the capital. Flames also could be seen leaping from some of the shacks that fill the capital's slums.

As many as 75,000 people have been internally displaced by the violence, the government said on Tuesday. Watch an aid worker describe fears that crisis may resemble Rwanda's »

The government banned political gatherings before the December 27 elections, and the ban will remain place "until the current security situation normalizes," government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Tuesday.

Violence erupted in the normally peaceful country over the weekend, as frustration mounted at the slow pace of vote counting. The violence came to a head after the nation's Election Commission announced Sunday that the incumbent Kibaki won with 51.3 percent of the vote, while Odinga had 48.7 percent.

Since then, more than 200 people have been killed, the government said.

International observers said the balloting fell short of international standards for democratic elections.

On Wednesday, Kenya's police commissioner issued a reminder to citizens that the rally for Odinga's party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), "has not been authorized and is therefore illegal."

"Any gatherings of any political group in large numbers will quite predictably evoke feelings of collective vengeance, and the ODM leaders who are convening this meeting have no means with which to control the expected violence," the commissioner's statement said.

"Further, police have information that there is a large band of criminals who have planned to exploit the gathering to cause chaos and looting within the city center."

On its Web site, the ODM called on Kibaki to protect all Kenyans.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "increasingly troubled" by the crisis, a statement from his spokesman said, adding that Ban is "contacting the leadership in Kenya, the African Union and other concerned parties."

"The secretary-general reminds the government, as well as the political and religious leaders of Kenya, of their legal and moral responsibility to protect the innocent lives of people, regardless of their racial, religious or ethnic origin, and he strongly urges them to do everything within their capacity to prevent any further violence," the statement said.

"He urges all efforts be made to avoid provocations and violence during planned demonstrations on Thursday."

Turbulence was also reported Wednesday in the Nairobi suburb of Muthare, a government stronghold, where youths were seen carrying machetes.

Video and pictures sent by CNN viewers in Kenya showed deserted streets and looted stores. Some Nairobi residents described the situation as relatively calm but said they could hear sporadic gunfire.

Groups have also set up unofficial roadblocks and barricades, making it difficult for the Red Cross to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance, the organization said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the government has halted all live broadcasts in the country, part of an effort to bring tensions down. The ODM called the move a "direct curtailment of freedom of expression rights that contravenes provisions of our constitution."

A local reporter on Wednesday told CNN he witnessed youths from minority tribal groups manning checkpoints outside Eldoret, about 185 miles (300 km) northwest of Nairobi, and refusing entry to members of the Kikuyu tribe.

Kenyans are required to carry identification cards, and a person's name often indicates what tribe they are from.

Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe which comprises roughly 22 percent of the country's population. Odinga belongs to the Luo tribe, which makes up about 13 percent of Kenya's population.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Odinga by telephone Wednesday and planned to also call Kibaki to appeal for an end to the political tensions that are sparking the violence, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

She earlier joined British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in calling for calm, reconciliation and national unity.

The European Union and the African Union have both offered their help in mediation efforts, but the Kenyan government did not immediately welcome those offers.

Kenyan Finance Minister Amos Kiminya on Wednesday said AU's assistance was not needed and that tribal elders were being used to calm the situation. E-mail to a friend

CNN's Matthew Chance, Paula Newton and journalist David McKenzie contributed

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