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 Dec. 27 disputed president election which 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, with hundreds killed and more than half of those driven from their homes belonging to Kibaki's tribe. 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 told The Associated Press.
Kikuyus torched the homes of Luo rivals in the center of Navaisha. Police, apparently overwhelmed, did not intervene. Gunshots rang out into the evening.
Looters used iron bars to smash the windows of shops belonging to non-Kikuyu businesspeople, and made off with television sets, groceries and clothing.
One woman came screaming down the road from a blazing house.
"They set it on fire, they are killing my brother and sister," Alice Okoth said.
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.
Soldiers and police reinforcements arrived late Sunday afternoon, firing tear gas and live bullets. Downtown Naivasha quickly became deserted, but on the outskirts, gangs of youths armed with machetes and clubs engaged in running battles with police who chased them down alleyways.
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.
The latest deaths brought the toll in a month of violence to nearly 800 killed.
Odinga met with Annan on Sunday and opposition spokesman Salim Lone said they were asked to name three negotiators for talks, which he said he would hopefully start "within a week."