Calls for Kenya dialogue as poll violence toll rises

Calls for   Kenya dialogue as poll violence toll rises

( AFP ) - World leaders Tuesday put diplomatic pressure on Kenya to open dialogue with the opposition and stem the post-election violence that has claimed some 250 lives in tribal clashes and police raids.

With defeated presidential challenger Raila Odinga sticking to his guns after a vote he says was rigged, and freshly re-elected President Mwai Kibaki vowing to assert his authority, the east African nation was locked in an unprecedented and crippling crisis.

European Union observers weighed in Tuesday saying the disputed presidential election fell short of international standards and called for an independent audit into the results.

Clashes were reported by police and witnesses overnight in most Nairobi slums as well as in several of Odinga's strongholds in western Kenya.

The city of Kisumu , northwest of Nairobi, appeared to be the worst affected, with a mortuary attendant telling AFP that 48 bodies were brought in overnight.

"They brought in 48 bodies, including three children, 44 had fresh bullet wounds, four were hacked with machetes," he said.

Police launched a ham-fisted crack down on looters and rival tribes engaged in running battles in Kisumu , the country's third city and heartland of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement.

Another 18 people were killed overnight in the nearby town of Eldoret , in violence that has spread to the eastern port of Mombasa and is the worst seen in Kenya's cities since a failed 1982 coup.

Slum areas were overrun by rioters burning down shops belonging to members of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and looting anything from refrigerators to basic goods, which have started running dry since the crisis brought East Africa's largest economy to a standstill.

According to a tally compiled by AFP, 251 people have died in politically related violence since the December 27 general elections.

The 76-year-old Kibaki , who was sworn in less than an hour after the electoral commission declared him the winner on Sunday, has vowed to clamp down on the unrest.

"We have put enough police officers in the specific areas where the incidences of violence have occurred to ensure everyone is secure," he said in a New Year message appealing for "national healing" and reconciliation.

Odinga has rejected Kibaki's victory as a civilian coup and urged his supporters to turn out for an alternative swearing-in ceremony at a rally in Nairobi on Thursday.

Police banned the gathering and warned Odinga , a fiery 62-year-old former political prisoner, that he would face arrest if it went ahead.

Foreign governments warned their nationals to avoid non-essential travel to Kenya, while tour operators called off excursions for tourists already there.

Washington initially congratulated Kibaki on his re-election but the US State Department on Monday withdrew the endorsement of the vote count made 24 hours earlier.

"I'm not offering congratulations to anybody," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

Former colony ruler Britain said it was "appalled" by the violence that has engulfed Kenya since its presidential election.

"We're appalled by and condemn the incidents of violence taking place in Kenya, including horrific killings in several Kenyan cities and towns. We call on all political leaders to urge restraint on their followers and avoid any actions that inflame tensions," Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been "in touch" with key Kenyan leaders on Monday to stress "reconciliation and unity" in dealing with the situation, the statement added.

UN chief Ban Ki -moon also urged restraint.

The latest violence has rattled a country generally considered as a beacon of democracy and stability in the region, with the threat of lasting tribal tit-for-tat killings now looming and the regime's legitimacy in doubt.

"The situation is very bad in the Rift Valley mainly around Eldoret where it appears to be organised killings. One tribe is targeting another one in a fashion that can rightly be described as ethnic cleansing," said one senior police official on condition of anonymity.

Although the army has not stepped in and Kenya's paramilitary police is believed to have only deployed a fraction of its forces, Kenya entered the New Year in what sometimes resembled a state of emergency.

Streets were deserted when the clock struck midnight and residents of Nairobi's wealthy neighbourhoods rushed to the few supermarkets still open to stock up on sugar and water rather than chocolates and champagne.

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