Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Kenya's army: the last defense before the abyss

By Julian Borger , THE GUARDIAN ,LONDON

Britain said on Tuesday that the Kenyan army is now "by far the best option" to stop a sectarian bloodbath as peace talks in Nairobi between the government and opposition were suspended.

The foreign office minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, Mark Malloch-Brown, said that there was a serious risk of renewed bloodshed if talks broke down irrevocably. About 1,000 Kenyans have been killed since disputed elections in December and 600,000 have fled their homes after rival gangs, organized largely along ethnic lines, went on the rampage.

The violence has died down recently as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan brokered negotiations, but he called a pause to the talks on Tuesday after several fruitless weeks. He said he would now hold direct talks with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

However, Western observers believe that extremists on both sides have used the lull to regroup and prepare for another, and potentially bloodier, bout of violence in Kenya.

"We're going to have to stop the violence," Malloch-Brown said. "The Kenyan military is by far the best option. The question is, can the army be brought in in a non-divisive way?"

He argued that the army is still respected by the Kenyan public as a genuinely national and multiethnic institution, unlike the police, but that its generals are reluctant to get involved because they want to maintain its status and unity.

Annan is believed to have issued an ultimatum to Kibaki and Odinga on Tuesday, telling them they were facing their last chance to contain the conflict before it tore their country apart.

"The talks have not broken down," Annan told reporters later. "But I am taking steps to make sure we accelerate the process and give peace to the people as soon as possible."

He was backed by coordinated statements from the US and the EU threatening sanctions against leaders on both sides if they did not agree to share power.

"I want to emphasize that the future of our relationship with both sides and their legitimacy hinges on their cooperation to achieve this political solution," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "In that regard, we are exploring a wide range of possible actions. We will draw our own conclusions about who is responsible for lack of progress and take necessary steps."

The EU statement emphasized "that a means of effective power-sharing in Kenya must be found and that individuals who obstruct the dialogue process will have to face the consequences."

Potential sanctions include travel bans aimed at the political elite on both sides, who holiday and send their children to school in Europe and the US.

Annan suspended talks between government and opposition negotiating teams after it became clear they were going nowhere.

"It was bad on Friday, and it just got worse," said a diplomat familiar with the talks.

Annan has attempted to broker a solution in which the president maintained control of foreign affairs and defense but devolved control over domestic affairs to an opposition prime minister. One of the reasons for the breakdown has been Kibaki's insistence on keeping a grip on the finance ministry.

Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, said the deployment of the Kenyan army could be extremely risky.

"The army has always been non-political. It's very professional, it does a lot of peacekeeping, it's trained by the Brits, it's a regular contingent in UN forces," Dowden said.

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