STUDENTS AT two Kenyan universities clashed with riot police yesterday as violence spread in a protest against the exploitation of one of Kenya's last surviving virgin forests.

Police used tear-gas and clubs against the students, who since Friday evening had been burning vehicles in the capital, Nairobi, as part of their anti-government protest. The deputy vice-chancellor of Nairobi University, Crispus Kiamba, announced that the college had been closed indefinitely.

New anti-riot armoured vehicles imported from South Africa were deployed for the first time yesterday, with tear- gas and rubber bullets.

Witnesses said that more than 1,000 students clashed with hundreds of riot police after the protesters blocked the Thika road, a main transport artery leading to the city centre. News reports said the Japanese and Ugandan ambassadors to Kenya had been assaulted by students who stopped their vehicles on the road.

The protests began over government land deals in the protected Karura forest on Nairobi's northern fringe, which the students say have involved a great deal of corruption. Over the past few months the deals have been condemned at both the local and international level.

Last month, the internationally known enviromentalist, Wangari Maathai, was reportedly beaten up by the police when she attempted to lead a protest and plant some saplings at Karura.

After commandeering tractors to storm the gates of the forest, the students shifted the focus of their protest to the streets of the capital and have now issued various demands, including the cancellation of the Karura deals and the release of arrested students.

The protesters are angry about the allocating of plots in the forest, which is government owned, for the construction of an upmarket housing estate.

Environmentalists say the forest is a vital green lung for Nairobi, a highly congested city with a population of more than three million. Suspicion is widespread that politicians and other members of the government have profited from the sale of forest plots.

At a news conference yesterday, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Mwai Kibaki, condemned the police violence and called on President Daniel arap Moi to resign. "It is particularly alarming and disgusting that the Moi regime has again resorted to the use of... repression and declared war against its own citizens to protect a few corrupt cronies," Mr Kibaki said.

State radio later carried a brief statement from Mr Moi, saying the protests had been sparked by "hatred and tribalism". He had yet to issue an official comment on the protests yesterday.

On Sunday, the Anglican Archbishop of Nairobi, the Most Rev David Gitari, said he would lead bishops in their clerical robes to Karura forest to join the demonstrations.