NAIVASHA, Kenya – Gangs of youths armed with machetes and clubs fought running battles with police on Sunday and burned tribal rivals alive in their homes in western Kenya, pushing the death toll from a month of escalating ethnic violence to nearly 800.
Sunday marked exactly one month since the disputed presidential election that sparked the violence that has transformed this once-stable African country, pitting longtime neighbors against each other and turning towns where tourists used to gather for luxury holidays into no-go zones.
It also complicated the task of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the latest international mediator trying to promote talks between President Mwai Kibaki and his chief rival, opposition leader Raila Odinga. The two met Thursday for the first time since the election.
Kibaki and Odinga remain far apart on how to resolve the crisis, the worst the country has seen since its 1963 independence from Britain. Kibaki has said he is open to direct talks with Odinga, but that his position as president is not negotiable. Odinga says Kibaki must step down and new elections are the only alternative.
The clashes have mainly pitted other ethnic groups, which support the opposition because they feel marginalized, against Kibaki’s Kikuyu people.
Kikuyus were the main victims in the initial eruption of violence. Now, however, it appears the Kikuyus are looking for revenge.
“We have moved out to avenge the deaths of our brothers and sisters who have been killed, and nothing will stop us,” said Anthony Mwangi, hefting a club in the western town of Naivasha. “For every one Kikuyu killed, we shall avenge their killing with three.”
The fighting spread Sunday to Naivasha, 55 miles northwest of Nairobi, a previously quiet tourist town with a stunning freshwater lake.
At least 22 people were killed in the town over the weekend, said district commissioner Katee Mwanza. At least five of them were burned to death in their homes, said Willy Lugusa, a police official. Others were hacked to death with machetes, a local reporter said.
Kikuyus torched the homes of Luo rivals in the center of Navaisha. Police, apparently overwhelmed, did not intervene. Gunshots rang out into the evening.
Mike Aringo, a 27-year-old resident, said hundreds of men swarmed the area Sunday morning.
“They told us if you are a Luo, you will be killed today,” Aringo said. Odinga is a Luo.
In the city of Nakuru, the provincial capital of Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley where ethnic clashes erupted late Thursday, some 55 bodies were counted Sunday at the morgue, said a morgue attendant who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Bodies were still arriving Sunday, although the running battles had largely cooled off. A local newspaper reporter saw another five bodies Sunday in two slums on the outskirts of Nakuru.