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35 Kenyans slain as mob burns church

Times Staff Writer

Post- election riots in Kenya descended into savage tribal killings Tuesday as a mob burned a church where families had taken shelter from the violence, leaving at least 35 people dead, witnesses reported. Many of the victims were children.

The church massacre in Eldoret followed the killings overnight of 18 people, some reportedly beheaded, in the town about 150 miles northwest of Nairobi, the capital. A police officer also was killed Tuesday.

Witnesses reported revenge killings and clashes between mobs from rival tribes armed with machetes called pangas or with bows and arrows.

“They’re armed with pangas, and when one group kills three people, the other group also kills three people. When one burns three houses, the other burns three houses. The situation has really deteriorated,” said Ken Wafula, a local human rights activist.

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“There is violence in all parts of town,” said Kikechi Biketi, Eldoret correspondent for the Standard daily newspaper. “Houses have been burned indiscriminately in most parts of Eldoret. They’re burning tires in the roads. There’s no transport. You can’t move. The situation is very bad.”

Eldoret police estimated that about 100 people had died in the town in the last four days, as furious opposition supporters rampaged, alleging ballot-rigging in Thursday’s presidential election. Police reported 170 dead in clashes across Kenya, but news agencies put the number at between 200 and 270.

Tens of thousands of people in Eldoret had fled their homes to take refuge in police compounds and church yards. Some houses sheltered dozens of terrified people.

Although the presidential candidates had avoided overt tribal campaigning, which is taboo in Kenyan society, ethnic violence exploded immediately after President Mwai Kibaki was announced the winner and hastily sworn in Sunday evening to a second term.

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As the violence continued Tuesday, diplomats in Nairobi pressed Kibaki and his main rival, Raila Odinga, to negotiate a political solution to stem the killings.

Increasing the pressure on Kibaki, European observers Tuesday called for an independent investigation into discrepancies in the tally, reporting that the election had failed to meet democratic standards. They called for an end to violence. The United Nations also called on Kenyan leaders to show restraint.

Kenyans have been shocked by the level of brutality in a country that, though in a volatile region of Africa, had emerged as a haven of political stability and economic prosperity.

An uneasy calm fell over many parts of Kenya on Tuesday, including some of the worst-hit areas such as Kisumu in the west and the Kibera slum district of Nairobi. But there were fears of a new explosion of violence Thursday when Odinga plans a “million-man march” to protest the election results. Police warned that the rally would be banned, but Odinga insisted that it would go ahead as planned.

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Tribal tensions have simmered in Kenya since multiparty elections were reintroduced in 1992 and the country’s more than 40 tribes began competing at the polls for political power and resources. Much of the resentment has been directed at Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the largest ethnic group, seen by others as having dominated politics and business for decades. Kikuyus account for 22% of the East African nation’s 37 million population.

Voting in Kenya tends to run along tribal lines, but the hard-fought race between Kibaki and Odinga, a Luo, has exacerbated the tensions. Odinga won the support of the Luos and several other tribes that felt it was their turn to hold power.

After Kibaki was sworn in, thousands of angry Luo youths poured into the streets, burning Kikuyu-owned businesses and beating up Kikuyus.

In Eldoret, where there are few Luos, the violence for the most part has been between members of the Kalenjin tribe, which backed Odinga, and the Kikuyus who voted for Kibaki.

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The city is situated in the fertile Rift Valley, an ethnically mixed area where tribal tensions run high and often turn violent during election campaigns. Much of the preelection violence seen in recent months occurred in the Rift Valley.

By Tuesday, about 200 Kikuyus in the town had taken refuge in the Kenya Assemblies of God Church. Most were evacuated by lunchtime, but about 50 remained when hundreds of youths armed with bows and arrows attacked about 1 p.m., according to Biketi, the Standard correspondent, who visited the scene.

Four men and six women were killed outside the church before youths torched the building, said Biketi, who like others from Eldoret was interviewed by telephone. At least 30 bodies lay piled in one corner, where people had run trying to escape, said Biketi. He said most were children between the ages of 6 and 15. Some were burned beyond recognition.

A Red Cross spokesman, Patrick Nyongesa, said his agency’s volunteers estimated that at least 35 people were killed. A Red Cross volunteer afraid to give her name said people in the area had indicated that the number of dead could be as high as 80, but that it was hard to tell because some bodies were burned to ashes.

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Wafula, the human rights activist, said tribal battles raged through Monday night and into Tuesday in the area of Eldoret where he lived. As Tuesday evening approached, dozens of armed Kikuyus were preparing to battle Kalenjins.

“There’s a battleground between these two estates. Each group is waiting to fight,” he said.

Complicating the situation in Eldoret, shops were closed and many people, afraid to go out, had been without access to food for four days.

Tony Sisule, a political analyst with a research firm, said competition between Kibaki and Odinga in the presidential race had been so fierce that they were forced to fall back on tribal constituencies to maximize support.

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“There’s a big problem in our mentality: People think that if it’s your man up there, you must support him,” he said. “That’s something we can only change with education.”

Although the tribal messages by leading candidates were not overt, just the fact that a Luo was running against a Kikuyu in a close two-person race had raised tensions to the boiling point.

“I think there’s been simmering resentment [over many years] because of this perception created by politicians that some groups are getting a bigger share of resources than other groups,” Sisule said. “This has been used by politicians in their political messages for a long time. This is a big lesson to politicians in Kenya that you can’t campaign on an ethnic platform.”

Tribalism traces back to Kenya’s pre-colonial history, he said, but was exploited by British colonizers and after independence by political parties.

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He said only a political resolution between Kibaki and Odinga would curtail the violence.

In Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum area, home to as many as 1 million people, the battles had stopped Tuesday, but dozens of looters carted off charred corrugated iron sheets from a ruined market where gangs of Luos had burned shops. Debris and rubbish lay all over the ground, and piles of burning trash filled the air with smoke.

Poking about in the ashes of his stall, Daniel Kahura, 34, described how he and fellow Kikuyus threw stones and battled the rioting Luos in a bid to protect their businesses.

“They came with pangas,” Kahura said. “They came in a big group and beat everyone and took everything. Everyone was trying to run and get away. It was scary. We had no choice but to run for our lives.

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“I thought, ‘If they get me they could kill me.’ ”

He said that in the lead-up to the election, tensions rose in Kibera, with Luos telling Kikuyus that once Odinga was voted in they would seize their property.

“They were saying that we [Kikuyus] have been in power for so many years and have benefited for many years and now it’s their turn to benefit.”

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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