Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at crowds gathered in Kenya today for a protest rally.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga vowed to go ahead with the “million man” rally in Nairobi today that many fear could worsen a wave of political and ethnic violence that humanitarian groups say has already killed 300 people and displaced 100,000.
He called the march to protest President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election in a December 27 vote, insisting the disputed poll was a sham.
Yesterday, he said the rally was meant to be peaceful.
The government has banned it, however, and with security forces deployed in force, violence was likely to erupt if protesters followed the call.
This morning, truckloads of riot police in red berets armed with rifles and batons patrolled the streets.
Dozens of security forces ringed the empty Uhuru Park in the city centre where protesters were expected to converge.
But instead of one large crowd, groups of hundreds began gathering in different areas.
On one main road, police fired tear gas and water cannons to push back a crowd of several hundred people from the Kibera slum holding branches and white flags.
One of them, 22-year-old Edward Muli, said: “Without Raila there will be no peace.”
The rally, Mr Odinga said, aimed to “to communicate to our people, to inform them where we are coming from, where we are and where we want to go”.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone yesterday with Mr Odinga and had a call scheduled with Mr Kibaki to ask the pair to resolve their differences peacefully, the US State Department said.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to say whether the United States recognised Mr Kibaki’s victory as legitimate but said Washington had “concerns” about accusations of electoral malfeasance that must be addressed within the country’s legal system.
Though both sides say they are ready to talk, the Odinga and Kibaki camps have mostly traded accusations the other is fuelling ethnic violence.
Mr Odinga says he will not meet with Mr Kibaki unless he concedes he lost the presidency, something Mr Kibaki is unlikely to do.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission urged Mr Kibaki to agree to an independent review of the disputed ballot count, saying in a statement: “Kenya will not survive this moment unless our leaders act like statesmen.”
Confusion has surrounded the disputed vote count. The head of the country’s electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, said he was pressured by both sides to announce the results quickly. The Nairobi newspaper The Standard quoted Mr Kivuitu yesterday as saying: “I do not know whether Kibaki won the election.”
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said clashes had only affected about three percent of the country’s 34 million people. “Kenya is not burning and not (in) the throes of any division,” he said, adding that security forces had arrested 500 people since skirmishes began.
Neighbouring Uganda says many petrol stations there have shut down because of shortages of fuel, most of which is imported by road from Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
The independent Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights said in a joint statement more than 300 people had been killed nationwide since the December 27 vote.
The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated more than 100,000 people have been displaced. Around 5,400 people have also fled to Uganda, said Musa Ecweru, that country’s disaster preparedness minister. Several hundred people have also fled to Tanzania, officials there said.
The bitter dispute has shattered Kenya’s image as a tourist-friendly oasis of stability in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.
It has also revealed ethnic rivalries under the surface of this regional economic powerhouse. Members of Mr Kibaki’s powerful Kikuyu tribe, influential in politics and business, were clashing with Mr Odinga’s Luos and others.
In one of the worst attacks, a mob set fire to a church on Tuesday in a town about 300 kilometres (185 miles) northwest of Nairobi where Kikuyus had taken refuge.
There were conflicting accounts about how many people died.
The Kenya Red Cross said in a statement it retrieved 17 bodies from the smouldering church, but other witnesses put the toll at up to 50.