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By Alisha Ryu
Nairobi
24 January 2008

The two rivals in Kenya's political crisis met on Thursday for the first time since a disputed election and pledged to seek an end to weeks of unrest that have killed nearly 700 people. President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga shook hands and smiled after the closed-door talks, brokered by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan. Both vowed to continue talks until a solution was found. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in Nairobi has this report.

In this photo released by Kenya's Presidential Press Service, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki, left, meets opposition leader Raila Odinga at his Harambee House office, in Nairobi, Kenya, 24 Jan 2008
In this photo released by Kenya's Presidential Press Service, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki, left, meets opposition leader Raila Odinga at his Harambee House office, in Nairobi, Kenya, 24 Jan 2008
The news of the meeting between the two bitter rivals came hours after President Kibaki held talks with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is leading an African Union mediation mission.      

Late Wednesday, the opposition agreed to Mr. Annan's request to cancel a mass protest planned for Thursday in the Kenyan capital.  Previous protests, banned by the government, have been marked by violent clashes between opposition supporters and the police. 

The opposition accuses Mr. Kibaki of rigging the December 27 presidential election to stay in power for a second five-year term and has demanded the president's resignation and a fresh vote.  The government has ruled out new elections and says complaints about the electoral process should go through the courts.      

Mr. Kibaki has said he is open to talks with his rival, but has repeatedly dismissed the need for international mediation.  Raila Odinga has demanded that outside mediators intervene in the political crisis.

Mr. Kibaki's meeting with the former U.N. chief was reportedly delayed a day to allow the president to spend more time with a close ally in the region, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who arrived separately in Nairobi two days ago to negotiate an agreement between the government and the opposition.

Mr. Museveni's press officer says the Ugandan leader has held talks with both sides and has proposed several options to end the dispute, including a deal to share power, establish a judicial commission of inquiry into the allegations of fraud in the vote-counting process, and launch an investigation into vicious ethnic-based killings that the government says were planned and orchestrated by leaders in the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, ODM, party.   

That accusation was bolstered by a report the New York-based Human Rights Watch released on Wednesday.  The group says it has found evidence that ODM leaders and local elders incited and organized ethnic attacks, mainly on members of President Kibaki's ethnic Kikuyu tribe, in Kenya's western Rift Valley.

For decades, the Rift Valley has been a hotbed of tribal tensions over land rights.  Those tensions boiled over in the aftermath of the disputed elections, because most non-Kikuyus voted for Raila Odinga, who belongs to the rival Luo tribe.   

Opposition party supporters react to the camera as they protest in Kisumu, western Kenya, Wednesday, 16 Jan. 2008
Opposition party supporters react to the camera as they protest in Kisumu, western Kenya,  16 Jan 2008

One of the authors of the rights group's report, Ben Rawlence, tells VOA there is no evidence directly linking top opposition politicians to the violence in the Rift Valley.  But he says he believes the party's leadership did not do enough to stop ODM leaders at the grassroots level from carrying out their plans.

"In western Kenya, everybody who is anybody is essentially ODM, because political and community structures pretty much overlap," he explained.  "The people were primed before the elections with a lot of incitement, a lot of very dubious radio rhetoric and rhetoric during political rallies and campaigning so that a lot of people we spoke to said, 'If Kibaki wins, it is war, no matter how Kibaki won.' So, there already was a sense that they were going to deal with the Kikuyus one way or another."

Human Rights Watch says a quick political settlement is necessary to stop the ethnic violence, but warns it could take decades to reconcile the tribes.

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