Kenya Opposition Rally Called Off

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Amid the mayhem, a top official with Raila Odinga's main opposition party said the rally to protest Kenya's disputed presidential election had been canceled and he called on supporters to go home.

[International: Kenya]

Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday to beat back crowds of rock-throwing opposition protesters who took to the streets for a rally many feared would deepen the crisis wracking what had been one of Africa's most stable countries.

Amid the mayhem, a top official with Raila Odinga's main opposition party said the rally to protest Kenya's disputed presidential election had been canceled and he called on supporters to go home.

"We are a peaceful people who do not want violence," William Ruto, a top party official told hundreds of supporters through a megaphone on a Nairobi street. "That is why we are peacefully dispersing now."

It was unclear whether the call was widely heard, however, and Ruto said another rally was planned Tuesday.

Odinga had called the march to protest President Mwai Kibaki's re-election in the Dec. 27 vote, insisting the poll was a sham. The political dispute has degenerated into ethnic violence nationwide pitting Kibaki's influential Kikuyus against Odinga's Luos and other tribes. About 300 people have been killed and 100,000 more displaced.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday to push back a crowd of several hundred people from the Kibera slum holding branches and white flags symbolizing peace. Some burned an effigy of Kibaki and waved placards denouncing him as the devil.

"Without Raila there will be no peace," said one of the protesters, 22-year-old Edward Muli.

Kenya's main newspapers ran front-page banners urging people to "save our beloved country."

"It's got to stop," U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger said of the violence, speaking on Kenyan Television News. Kibaki "needs to speak out and Odinga needs to speak out and bring this thing to an end."

Though both sides say they are ready to talk, the Odinga and Kibaki camps have mostly traded accusations that the other is fueling ethnic violence. Odinga says he will not meet with Kibaki unless the latter concedes he lost the presidency, something Kibaki is unlikely to do.

In a bid to help ease the crisis, South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu flew to Nairobi and met Odinga. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said Odinga was ready for "the possibility of mediation."

Tutu gave no details but said he hoped to meet Kibaki as well. Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Kibaki had no plans yet for such a meeting.

Neighboring Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's office said he had spoken to the two rivals, also trying to end the unrest. But Museveni also issued a statement congratulating Kibaki for being re-elected.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission urged Kibaki to agree to an independent review of the disputed ballot count, saying in a statement: "Kenya will not survive this moment unless our leaders act like statesmen."

Confusion has surrounded the disputed count. The head of the country's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, said he was pressured by both sides to announce the results quickly. The Nairobi newspaper The Standard quoted Kivuitu on Wednesday as saying: "I do not know whether Kibaki won the election."

The bitter dispute has shaken Kenya's image as an tourist-friendly oasis of stability in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.

Smoke from burning tires and debris rose from barricaded streets Thursday, not just around the city's huge slums where hundreds of thousands of Odinga's supporters live, but on main roads leading into suburbs home to upper class Kenyans and expatriates.

In the Mathare slum, rival groups of angry men hurled rocks at each other. Black smoke billowed from a burning gas station, and several charred cars sat along roadside. The corpse of at least one dead man lay face down on a muddy path, and a wailing wife pulled her battered husband from the dark waters of the Nairobi River, where he had been dumped and left for dead.

Police Chief Mark Mwara called the protesters "hooligans" and accused them of attacking petrol stations and supermarkets. Some shops around the city were set on fire.

Uhuru Park, where protesters were expected to converge in the city center, was empty, surrounded by truckloads of riot police in red berets.

Government spokesman Mutua said clashes had only affected about 3 percent of the country's 34 million people. "Kenya is not burning and not (in) the throes of any division," he said, adding that security forces had arrested 500 people since skirmishes began.

Vice President Moody Awori said on a local television station that the unrest was costing the country $31 million daily. Uganda says many gas stations there have shut down because of shortages of fuel, most of which is imported by road from Kenya's Indian Ocean coast.

The independent Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights said in a joint statement that more than 300 people had been killed nationwide since the Dec. 27 vote.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated more than 100,000 people have been displaced. Around 5,400 people have fled to neighboring Uganda, said Musa Ecweru, that country's disaster preparedness minister. Several hundred people also have fled to Tanzania, officials there said.

2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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