Riot police in Kenya fired tear gas and water cannons today to beat back surging crowds of rock-throwing opposition protesters who took to the streets for a cancelled rally.
Many had feared the rally would deepen the crisis in what had been one of Africa’s most stable countries.
However, a top official of Raila Odinga’s main opposition party said the rally had been cancelled and called on supporters to go home.
William Ruto, a top party official, told hundreds of supporters through a megaphone on a Nairobi street: “We are a peaceful people who do not want violence. That is why we are peacefully dispersing now.”
It was unclear whether the call was widely heard and Mr Ruto said another rally was planned for Tuesday.
Mr Odinga called the march to protest against president Mwai Kibaki’s re-election in the December 27 vote, insisting the poll was a sham.
Kenya’s attorney general, Amos Wako, has today called for independent body to verify the vote tally in the disputed election.
The political dispute has degenerated into ethnic violence nationwide, pitting Mr Kibaki’s influential Kikuyus against Mr Odinga’s Luos and other tribes. About 300 people have been killed and 100,000 more displaced.
There was no sign of the gigantic crowds that had been expected in Nairobi’s streets today. Instead, smaller groups of a few hundred people each streamed unsuccessfully towards the centre from various directions as police tried to force them back.
Smoke from burning tyres and debris rose from barricaded streets, not just around the city’s huge slums where hundreds of thousands of Mr Odinga’s supporters live, but on main roads leading into suburbs home to upper class Kenyans and expatriates.
In the Mathare slum, rival groups of men hurled rocks at each other. Black smoke billowed from a burning gas station, and several burnt-out cars sat along roadside. The body of at least one dead man lay face down on a muddy path, and a wailing wife pulled her battered husband from the dark waters of the Nairobi River where he had been dumped and left for dead by his would-be killers.
On one main road in another part of the city, 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 symbolising peace. Some burned an effigy of Kibaki and waved placards denouncing him as the devil.
“Without Raila there will be no peace,” said one of the protesters, 22-year-old Edward Muli.
The centre was almost completely deserted, except for truckloads of riot police in red berets who kept protesters away from Uhuru Park, the would-be destination for the rally.
Police chief Mark Mwara called the protesters “hooligans” and accused them of attacking petrol stations and supermarkets. Some shops around the city were set on fire.
Odinga says the rally was meant to be peaceful. Determined to go forward despite a government ban, violence was bound to break out.
Though both sides say they are ready to talk, the Odinga and Kibaki camps have mostly traded accusations that the other is fuelling ethnic violence. Odinga says he will not meet with Kibaki unless the latter concedes he lost the presidency, something Kibaki is unlikely to do.
In a bid to help ease the crisis, South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu flew to Nairobi and met Odinga. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said Odinga was ready for “the possibility of mediation” .
Tutu gave no details but said he hoped to meet Kibaki as well. Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Kibaki had no plans yet for such a meeting.
Neighbouring Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni’s office said he had spoken to the two rivals, also trying to end the unrest. But Museveni also issued a statement congratulating Kibaki for being re-elected.
The bitter dispute has shaken Kenya’s image as an tourist-friendly oasis of stability in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.
The country’s main newspapers ran front-page banners urging Kenyans to “save our beloved country,” one of them over a photograph of a wasteland of dozens of recently levelled and burning shacks in a slum.
“It’s got to stop,” US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger said of the violence, speaking on Kenyan TV. Mr Kibaki “needs to speak out and Odinga needs to speak out and bring this thing to an end.”
The Kenya Human Rights Commission earlier 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 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 Kivuitu yesterday as saying: “I do not know whether Kibaki won the election.”
The independent Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights said in a joint statement that 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 fled to neighbouring Uganda, said Musa Ecweru, that country’s disaster preparedness minister. Several hundred people have also fled to Tanzania, officials there said.