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Human rights group blames Kenya civic leaders

NAIROBI, Kenya – A leading human rights group said Monday that Kenyan political and business leaders plotted much of the country’s recent ethnic violence, and it urged the new coalition government to bring the organizers to justice.

New York-based Human Rights Watch found evidence that hundreds of people were killed in planned ethnic attacks after the disputed presidential election in December. In many cases, the group said, the attacks were planned and financed by prominent civic leaders, although the group didn’t directly implicate top national politicians.

In a report titled “Ballots to Bullets,” the group also charged that police used excessive force to break up demonstrations in opposition strongholds, fatally shooting hundreds of people, including children.

More than 1,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by more than two months of fighting, which destroyed Kenya’s reputation as a stable democracy. Last month, President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga – who claimed that Kibaki stole the election – agreed to form a coalition government and a commission to investigate the violence.

“For the new government to function well and earn the people’s trust, it needs to first heal the wounds by prosecuting those behind the violence,” said Georgette Gagnon, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director.

The fighting, centered in the western Rift Valley region, had its roots in tribe-based grievances over land that date from before 1963, when Kenya won independence from Britain. Tribes native to the Rift Valley long have complained that Kikuyus, Kenya’s dominant tribe, were illegally granted large parcels of land, and Kibaki’s Kikuyu-led government has failed to address the land question since coming to power in 2002.

Ethnically charged rhetoric marred the 2007 election campaign, a tightly fought race that saw Kikuyus overwhelmingly favoring Kibaki while a smattering of smaller tribes backed Odinga.

Researchers found that leaders of the Kalenjin tribe, which backed Odinga, planned attacks on Kikuyu homes before the election. One Kalenjin elder said he attended a meeting in the town of Eldoret where elders “said that if there is any sign that Kibaki is winning, then the war should break.”

Leading politicians on both sides have denied playing any role in the attacks. But many Kenyan activists say top officials allowed the violence to continue by not appealing more forcefully to their supporters to back down.