Kenya vows tougher crackdown

The ethnic crisis is taking center stage at a three-day African Union summit in neighboring Ethiopia.

Karel Prinsloo/AP
Harder line: Police officers confronted a man in the capital, Nairobi, Wednesday after a group of protesters blocked a main highway.

Dressed in their distinctive green, padded body armor they have become a familiar sight at Nairobi's major intersections.

The Administration Police, armed with teargas and rifles, have been deployed almost daily to ensure that opposition protesters are unable to bring the city to a standstill.

Human rights campaigners have accused officers of inflaming tensions with their heavy-handed tactics, but now that a second round of ethnic clashes this past week has pushed the death toll up to more than 850 since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election, the government is planning an even tougher crackdown.

During a visit to the Rift Valley city of Naivasha, scene of intense ethnic violence this week, George Saitoti, Kenya's internal security minister, promised tougher action against the gangs responsible.

"This is the work of hooligans and thugs and we have to make sure they don't get their way," he said.

The government on Tuesday demonstrated its willingness to apply heavier force, sending in two Army helicopters to fire rubber bullets over a mob of ethnic Kiuyus in Naivasha as they sought revenge for killings of their tribesmen over the past few weeks.

Mr. Saitoti said the government would tolerate no more violence and would ensure that railways and roads, economic lifelines for Kenya's neighbors, remained open.

But police have already been accused of using heavy-handed tactics such as using live rounds to disperse crowds.

Excessive force?

Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a government-funded watchdog group, says the police are responsible for escalating the conflict.

"They are confronting people interested in nothing other than peaceful protest, firing teargas or live rounds, and the result is anarchy," he says.

On Thursday, a police officer shot dead an opposition legislator, two days after another MP was killed outside his house.

The police are using tactics adopted by the British colonial police before independence, claims Mr. Kiai, using maximum force to crush any opposition.

"We need smart policing not tougher policing," says Kiai, who has received death threats for his work protecting human rights since the election.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno echoed these concerns Thursday on the sidelines of an African Union summit in neighboring Ethiopia. "We see as peacekeepers the importance of not using force to resolve a problem," he said. "That is why the position of the [UN] is to give full support to [former UN chief and current head negotiator for the Kenya crisis Kofi Annan] in his efforts, because that is the solution; it has to be a political solution."

Yet, despite concerns that increasing government force could exacerbate the crisis, other African leaders at this week's AU summit called for tougher action to stop the violence in Kenya.

"We cannot just sit with arms folded," AU commission chairman Alpha Konare told delegates. "If Kenya burns, there will be nothing left tomorrow."

Tougher action advised

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the Reuters news agency that Kenya's Army might have to take over before things get worse. "I know that it is not fashionable and right for the armies to get involved in such a political situation," he said. "But in situations where institutions have lost control, I wouldn't mind such a solution."

In an editorial yesterday, one of Kenya's leading newspapers called for a stronger police response.

"With the killings and blocking of roads going on, the police must stop looking on and sweet-talking criminals. This is barbarism at its worst and it must be stopped," the East African Standard wrote.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is expected to brief other heads of state on the crisis during the three-day AU meeting.

Observers at the summit said the AU was becoming more serious about its role in tackling the continent's problems.

"The interesting thing is that they are no longer turning away from the problems; they are attacking the problems," said Stefano Manservisi, the European Union's director general for development. "I hope they will come out with strong conclusions."

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