Tribal strife tearing country apart
The Miami Herald
By Shashank Bengali

As the death toll from days of tribal warfare topped 300, the fabric of tribal coexistence that generally has characterized civic life for decades is unraveling.

A day after a grisly attack in Eldoret in central Kenya in which 59 members of the Kikuyu tribe were burned alive in a church, witnesses said that some 40 bodies, many of them displaying machete wounds, lay dead on the grounds of the Kaptein Tea Estate, owned by the Unilever Corp. Residents interviewed by telephone said the victims belonged mostly to the Kisii tribe, which is allied with the Kikuyus in that area.

”They were probably killed [Tuesday], but the bodies are still lying there,” said Vincent Korir, a 30-year-old farmer. “No one is attending to them.”

In Nairobi, a Kikuyu mother of three stood beside a charred apartment house Wednesday and spoke quietly so that neighbors in other tribes couldn’t listen.

”I hear others whispering in small groups,” Serena Wambui, 46, said of her neighborhood, where she counted residents of at least five tribes. “I fear they will definitely attack us.”

The main victims so far are the Kikuyus, Kenya’s most prominent tribe and key backers of the Kikuyu president, Mwai Kibaki, who claimed a narrow reelection victory Sunday despite credible reports that he had stolen thousands of votes.

Kibaki had himself sworn in within minutes, triggering a wave of beatings, looting and arson by Luos, Kalenjins and other rival tribes who think that the Kikuyus have dominated politics and business for too long.

U.S. and European observers have said the vote-counting process was flawed, and the Bush administration has withheld recognition of Kibaki. The U.S.-funded International Republican Institute charged Wednesday that the Kenyan government and its election commission had “failed in its responsibility to the people of Kenya.”

The latest local official to undercut the result was the government’s chief election official, who told local media outlets Wednesday that Kibaki’s party had pressured him to announce a winner before the vote tallies could be verified. Asked whether Kibaki had won, the haggard-looking official, Samuel Kivuitu, said, “I don’t know.”

Kibaki aides didn’t respond to the statement.

Residents in Nairobi braced for more chaos as opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, called for a ”mass protest against a rigged election” Thursday in the center of the capital. Government officials vowed to block the demonstration.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by phone with Odinga and planned to speak with Kibaki to urge a compromise.

”So long as people are saying the elections were stolen, there is no way you can start negotiations from there,” said a Kibaki ally, Finance Minister Amos Kimunya.

The U.N. said that 70,000 Kenyans had fled their homes, and the independent Kenya Human Rights Commission estimated the death toll at more than 300 since the vote last Thursday.

Swarms of heavily armed police officers and soldiers swept into Eldoret to restore order after Tuesday’s church burning. But aid workers saw fresh columns of smoke rising from hundreds of homes in the countryside and worried that Kenyan authorities weren’t keeping up with the carnage.

”It is really disturbing,” said Daniel Kiptugen, a conflict resolution officer with the British charity Oxfam. “I know a place where some dogs have already started mauling dead bodies that have been lying there.”

McClatchy special correspondent Munene Kilongi contributed to this report.

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