Hopes pinned on African Union head to defuse poll violence

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The Independent Online

The head of the African Union is expected to arrive in Nairobi today to try to stop the country widely regarded as one of the continent's success stories from sliding into the abyss, after disputed elections triggered deadly tribal violence.

The Ghanaian President John Kufuor has the backing of Western leaders, including Gordon Brown, to mediate in the crisis, and is due to meet the Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki and the defeated opposition challenger Raila Odinga. "President Kufuor... will work with the parties to ensure reconciliation is brought about and perhaps a chance that some of the people who are at the moment opponents may join a government of national unity," said Mr Brown.

Given the accusations of genocide flying about in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, dousing the flames will require the deployment of every tactic in Mr Kufuor's diplomatic repertoire.

Human rights activists estimate that at least 300 people have died since the contested re-election of President Kibaki, who was hastily sworn in at the weekend amid allegations of vote-rigging.

A statement released yesterday by Mr Kibaki's government put the blame for the clashes squarely at the door of Mr Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). "It is becoming clear that these well-organised acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were well planned, financed and rehearsed by ODM leaders prior to the general election," said the statement.

After the massacre of members of Mr Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe in a church in the Rift Valley, tensions are running high. Asked if he would urge his supporters to calm down, Mr Odinga told BBC Radio: "I refuse to be asked to give the Kenyan people an anaesthetic so that they can be raped."

Mr Odinga whose supporters hail mainly from the Luo tribe is planning to go ahead with a banned rally in Nairobi today, and there are fears that more clashes could erupt between his supporters and Kenyan security forces.

The chaos surrounding the ballot reached new heights yesterday, when Kenya's electoral commission chief Samuel Kivuitu, who pronounced Mr Kibaki the victor on Sunday, said he could not be sure who had won. When asked if Mr Kibaki had been re-elected, he responded, "I do not know".

Some analysts believe that a reconciliation government is the only way for Kenya to get back on track, and there were hints that Britain and the US might support that approach. The British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a joint statement, urging "all political leaders to engage in a spirit of compromise that puts the democratic interests of Kenya first".

Mr Miliband added: "I very much hope that both Mr Odinga and President Kibaki will realise that there's actually nothing to be gained by either of them in pretending that this is cut and dried."

The Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights said more than 300 people had been killed nationwide since the poll last week, while the Norwegian Refugee Council estimated that more than 100,000 people have had to flee their homes.

Although Mr Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe bore the brunt of the initial violence, rights groups say revenge killings by Kikuyus are on the rise.

Kenya is usually viewed as a peacemaker for disputes in neighbouring countries, rather than a problem country itself. And at the heart of the diplomatic flurry to contain the crisis is the fear that any escalation would have repercussions around Africa.

"There are elections in other parts of Africa over the next 18 months: in Angola, in Ghana, in Malawi," said Mr Miliband. "Kenya is very, very important in and of itself and it's important for what it says about the rest of Africa and its approach to democracy."