Kenya edged closer to tribal warfare last night after more than 100 people at least 80 of them children burned to death as the church they had fled to for refuge was set alight. More than 200 people, mainly Kikuyus, the same tribe as President Mwai Kibaki, were sheltering for safety in the Kenya Assemblies of God church five miles outside Eldoret in the Rift Valley. An armed gang of young men drawn from the Kalenjin, Luhya and Luo tribes ethnic groups which backed the beaten presidential candidate Raila Odinga stormed the church compound yesterday morning and set it alight.
Joseph Karanja, a volunteer for the Kenya Red Cross, who arrived at the scene in the afternoon, said he counted scores of bodies. "They were piled up, on top of each other". He said at least 80 of the dead were children. "You could see from the size of their heads and bodies they were kids.
"There were also adults but I couldn't recognise the men from the women they were all burnt beyond recognition. There were old, old people and women who could not walk. They and the children all got burned. Altogether there were more than 100 bodies.
"Those were the ones I could see. There were also others who were covered by the building itself which was burning. The whole church was on fire. It had collapsed. Outside the gates there were six dead bodies. They were cut with pangas [machetes]. They had been running away, running for their lives."
The death toll at the Eldoret church was expected to rise further. As darkness fell the remains of the mud and wood structure continued to smoulder. Police had been unable to recover any of the bodies.
"I have cried, I have cried, I have cried," said Mr Karanja. "What I saw today should never be seen. I could not handle it myself."
Last night a further 42 people were in Eldoret's Moi referral hospital with serious burns, many in a critical condition. Kenya Red Cross officials said that number would also rise.
Bishop Korir, the bishop of Eldoret, said more than 15,000 people were sheltering inside church compounds in his diocese. "It is the only place where people felt safe, but now I don't know. This situation is so bad. We have 8,000 people in one compound. They have no food, no water and no security. The situation is so bad there are dead bodies lying in the streets."
Ethnic violence has swept through Kenya since Mwai Kibaki was controversially announced as the winner of last Thursday's presidential election. Paramilitary police have fired on Mr Odinga's supporters in Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria, and in the slums of Nairobi.
Kikuyus, the largest of Kenya's 42 tribes, and the ethnic group of Mr Kibaki, have been fleeing their homes across the Rift Valley, seeking sanctuary in churches and police stations. Friends from other tribes have been hiding Kikuyus in their homes. Up to 50,000 Kikuyus across the country are believed to have left their homes.
Rhetoric was ratcheted up on all sides as the nationwide death toll from post-election riots rose above 200 in clashes which have become increasingly tribal. Mr Odinga said the government was guilty of "genocide", while government ministers in turn accused Mr Odinga of inciting ethnic violence.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe warned: "Our officers are exercising a lot of restraint in maintaining the law. This restraint will not last forever."
In a front-page editorial, Kenya's Daily Nation urged both Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga to "stop the senseless slaughter". It accused both men and their acolytes of stirring up ethnic tensions. "How many more must die, how much more must be destroyed before you come to your senses?"
The security forces are becoming increasingly divided along ethnic lines. Kalenjin army officers were said to be taking to the streets of Eldoret joining in the attacks on Kikuyus.
Witnesses said most of the business properties owned by Kikuyus had been burnt down. The marauding gangs were now attacking residential areas. "They stormed our house at night and burnt everything," said Margaret Wanjiru, a Kikuyu. Her 90-year-old grandmother and 75-year-old mother were both too frail to run. They perished in the fire.
Many Kikuyus have looked on in horror as the violence has intensified. "Kibaki has put the whole tribe in danger," said Juliette Njeri, 28, from Nairobi. "This won't end soon."Reuse content