NAIROBI, Kenya, (AP)- Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday to beat back crowds of protesters heeding an opposition call for a “million-man” rally that many fear could worsen the violence that already has killed 300 people and displaced 100,000.
There was no sign yet, however, of the gigantic crowds many feared. Instead, small groups of a few hundred people each streamed toward the capital from various directions, as police tried to choke them off at strategic spots.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga 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.
On Wednesday, Odinga told The Associated Press the rally was meant to be peaceful. The government has banned the march, setting the stage for clashes between security forces and Odinga’s supporters.
Truckloads of riot police in red berets armed with rifles and batons ringed the empty Uhuru Park in the city center early Thursday where protesters were expected to converge.
On one main road, police fired tear gas and water cannons to push back a crowd of several hundred people from the Kibera slum holding branches and white flags symbolizing peace.
“Without Raila there will be no peace,” said one of the protesters, 22-year-old Edward Muli.
Elsewhere, smoke from burning tires rose from the streets as gunshots rang out. Police Chief Mark Mwara called the protesters “hooligans” and accused them of attacking gas stations and supermarkets.
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 an apparent attempt to help ease the crisis, South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu flew to Nairobi and was due to meet Odinga later Thursday, Odinga’s spokesman Salim Lone said. However, government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Kibaki had no plans to meet Tutu.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni congratulated Kibaki for being re-elected, a government newspaper in Kampala reported. It said Museveni has talked with Kibaki and Odinga.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone Wednesday with Odinga and had a call scheduled with Kibaki to ask the pair to resolve their differences peacefully, the State Department said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to say whether the United States recognized Kibaki’s victory as legitimate but said Washington had “concerns” about accusations of electoral malfeasance.
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.”
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. Neighboring 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 have also fled to Tanzania, officials there said.
The bitter dispute has shattered Kenya’s image as an tourist-friendly oasis of stability in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.