Kenyan minister rejects UN offer

A leading Kenyan government minister rejected the mediation of Kofi Annan yesterday, a day before the former UN secretary-general was expected in Nairobi to try to resolve the East African nation's bloody dispute over presidential elections.

Public schools reopened following their closure last week and children trooped through traffic jams back to class.

It was a sign that life was returning to normal following the deep political and ethnic tensions unleashed by the 27 December election, which foreign observers say had a deeply flawed vote tally. Even the electoral commission chairman has said he is not sure who won.

More than 600 people have died in the ensuing violence.

"We won the elections ... We do not see the point for anyone coming to mediate power-sharing," said John Michuki, a member of President Mwai Kibaki's inner circle.

"We have not invited Kofi Annan or any other eminent personality to come and mediate," the minister of roads and public works told reporters.

It was unclear if Michuki spoke for Kibaki, who has said he does not want a mediator but direct talks with his rival, opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Since mediation by the United States and African Union failed last week, Odinga has called for three days of protests across the country to start on Wednesday, in defiance of a new government ban on demonstrations.

Police, already accused of killing dozens of protesters by human rights workers, say they will not allow the rallies. The stage appears set for more violent clashes.

In the troubled western town of Kisumu, where dozens of protesters were killed in the days after election results were announced, shopkeepers were welding metal shutters over shop fronts Monday to prevent a repeat of the looting that characterized the previous violence.

Lines around the block formed at some supermarkets and banks as people stocked up against protests they fear could again paralyze the nation.

Annan appealed for calm before his departure Monday from Geneva, and alluded to the proposed protests. "Pending this (mediation), no party should create facts on the ground or engage in acts that complicate the search for a negotiated solution," he said. "The purpose of our mission is to help the Kenyan people find a peaceful and just solution to the current crisis."

The official death toll rose as more bodies were found. Rachel Arungah, head of a special government committee set up to coordinate aid, said at least 612 people have died.

Arungah said the number of people displaced had dropped from 255,000 to around 200,000 as people moved in with relatives or returned home.

In Nairobi, the dueling political parties braced for a showdown at Tuesday's opening of parliament, where Odinga's party has 99 seats to Kibaki's 43.

A fracas was expected as opposition spokesman Salim Lone said, "We are going to go to parliament and sit on the government side and that will make clear who won the election."

Both parties were courting legislators from minority parties, in hopes of drumming up the two-thirds majority needed to elect a speaker of the National Assembly.

"They are on a shopping expedition to buy as many MPs as they can, and Kenya's MPs are extremely buyable," Gladwell Wathoni Otieno, executive director of the Africa Center for Open Governance, said, referring to the country's pervasive corruption.

As the crisis dragged on, thousands of tourists canceled vacations, and the International Cricket Council moved Kenya's Intercontinental Cup match against Namibia from Nairobi to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

Since the conflict erupted, primary and secondary school grounds in rural areas have been used as sites for displaced people, while others were vandalized or burned down by rioting youth. On Monday, some remained closed, but figures on how many or what percentage of students showed up nationwide were unavailable.

Evelyn Imbwana, a mother of three forced from her home by the violence, said her children's school still was closed because it was attacked and looted last week by rampaging mobs.

"It's unfair that we suffer while politicians fight," she said at a sports ground where she has sought refuge.

Another school in Nairobi's Kibera slum was missing half its 2,600 students, headmistress Ruth Namulundu said. Many parents fearing a new eruption of violence requested their children be transferred to their families' native villages, Namulundu said.

In Rift Valley province, west of Nairobi, decomposing bodies lay in two school compounds near the town of Burnt Forest.