NAIROBI, Kenya – Hundreds of Kenyans fearing new political violence fled the country's west Wednesday, but the president urged refugees not to abandon their homes and insisted he would hold onto power despite allegations he stole an election.
Diplomats worked to end a conflict that has killed more than 500 people since the Dec. 27 presidential vote. President Mwai Kibaki assured the visiting African Union chairman Wednesday that he was ready for dialogue, although he has resisted outside mediation and the opposition insists it will not negotiate without it.
Kibaki made his first trip to a trouble spot, addressing more than 1,000 refugees in western Kenya, many of whom had fled blazing homes, pursued by rock-throwing mobs wielding machetes and bows and arrows.
"Do not be afraid. The government will protect you. Nobody is going to be chased from where they live," Kibaki said at a school transformed into a camp for the displaced in the corn-farming community of Burnt Forest. "Those who have been inciting people and brought this mayhem will be brought to justice."
He indicated he would not consider demands for a new election or vote recount.
The election "is finished and anybody who thinks they can turn it around should know that it's not possible and it will never be possible," he said.
Hundreds of Kenyans fled the western town of Kisumu, fearing more strife after Kibaki named half of a new Cabinet, a lineup packed with his allies.
With suitcases on their heads and frightened children grabbing at their skirts, ethnic Kamba women searched for transportation out of Kisumu after one of their tribe was named vice president. Seven buses and two dozen cars overloaded with people who waited on a police escort to try to reach Nairobi.
On the road to the capital, dozens of angry youths brandishing sticks burned tires to block the route. "If elections fail, violence prevails!" they shouted.
Thousands of people from Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe have already been chased or burned out of their homes in Kisumu in a week of riots and ethnic clashes following the disputed elections.
"Our lives are in danger. Now those things that happened to the Kikuyu will happen to the Kamba," businessman Isaac Notuva said at the Kisumu bus station, where fares doubled overnight.
Salim Lone, a spokesman for Odinga's party, said Kibaki's Cabinet announcement was "a slap in the face" and was intended to undermine the AU-mediated talks on the crisis.
The Cabinet members announced by Kibaki included no portfolios for members of Odinga's party. Most posts went to members of Kibaki's party, although Kalonzo Musyoka, a minor presidential candidate who won just 9 percent of votes, was named vice president and another member of Kalonzo's party was named information minister.
In a statement, Kibaki indicated there still was room for the main opposition party in his full Cabinet. "It is envisioned that this government will be established as a result of a constructive and inclusive dialogue. Nothing is ruled out in this process," he said.
The United States said the Cabinet choices were disappointing but praised Kibaki's clarification that they were not meant to antagonize the opposition.
"Absolutely we were disappointed. He's now come out and clarified where he stands on this, and that's very positive," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "What's really important is that they actually get to talking and not have this be an obstacle."
Kibaki assured AU chairman John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, that he had already initiated a process of dialogue with other Kenyan leaders," according to a government statement.
But on Tuesday, Odinga rejected Kibaki's invitation to talks as a "public relations gimmickry" intended to deflect attention from international mediation.
Odinga met Wednesday with Kufuor and four former African heads of state. He said he told the statesmen "we want peace to return to our country ... There cannot be lasting peace without justice."
According to a Kenyan government Web site, Kibaki won 47 percent of the ballots cast, against Odinga's 44 percent.
However, even the chairman of the country's electoral commission has said he is not sure Kibaki won. The top American envoy to Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said this week that the vote count at the heart of the dispute was tampered with and both sides could have been involved.
Kenya is an ally in the United States' war on terrorism and has turned over dozens of people to the U.S. and Ethiopia as suspected terrorists. The country allows American forces to operate from Kenyan bases and conducts joint exercises with U.S. troops in the region.
The U.S. also is a major donor to Kenya, long seen as a stable democracy in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan. Aid amounts to roughly $1 billion a year, said U.S. Embassy spokesman T.J. Dowling.