Kenya was teetering on the brink of a return to violence last night, as the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan suspended negotiations on a political settlement aimed at restoring peace to the country that had been Africa's most stable democracy until disputed elections.
Mr Annan has been showing signs of exasperation and has threatened to walk out of the talks altogether because of the failure to reach a power-sharing deal involving President Mwai Kibaki and the opposition leader Raila Odinga, with disagreement focusing on the scope of the prime minister's role. However Mr Annan appears to be aware that his presence is preventing a bloodbath, and he said the situation had become "very dangerous".
Mr Annan insisted last night, at the end of what was described as "D-Day", that negotiations had not "broken down" and that he was suspending them in order to "accelerate the process. The leaders have to assume their responsibilities and become directly engaged in these talks."
The post-election violence that has claimed more than 1,000 lives and left the country bitterly divided along tribal lines has faded during the past two weeks of negotiations in line with promises by both sides. About 600,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes by the clashes that broke out following President Kibaki's declaration of victory after the 27 December presidential elections. Mr Odinga, from the rival Luo tribe, also claimed victory after what he said was a sham poll. But it is rumoured that gangs have used the breathing space of the talks to rearm.
The Kenyan leaders came under mounting international pressure to resolve their differences last night, with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, issuing a veiled threat to the future of bilateral relations.
"I want to emphasise that the future of our relationship with both sides and their legitimacy hinges on their co-operation to achieve this political solution," she said, speaking in China. "We will draw our own conclusions about who is responsible for lack of progress and take necessary steps."
She did not elaborate, but a possible travel ban targeting the Kenyan elite, whose children are educated in British schools, could be envisaged by the international community which is united behind Mr Annan's efforts to find a political solution. Ms Rice said there was "no excuse for further delay". The EU was expected to issue a statement on the crisis last night.
Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete, the current head of the African Union, is due in Nairobi today in a last-ditch attempt to talk to the mediator and the Kenyan leaders. But it is not clear what leverage the international community has over Kenya, which has above all suffered from damage to its tourism industry and trade as a result of the ethnic unrest.
The opposition is also keeping up its own pressure on the negotiators and has called for nationwide demonstrations beginning tomorrow if there is no deal.
The Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa, Lord Malloch Brown, warned yesterday that Kenya may need to deploy the army – which unlike the police has remained neutral in the political crisis – to quell any renewed violence. Deployment of the army would be "by far the best option," he said, although he acknowledged that such a move risked being interpreted as "a coup" by the opposition. And such a deployment would not contribute to a solution between the political rivals.
Mr Annan said on Monday that almost no progress had been made in the talks, in particular Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki remain far apart on defining the role of prime minister.