Kenya opposition stages mass rally to challenge president

Nairobi (AFP) - Thousands of Kenyans chanted anti-government slogans Monday at a rally in Nairobi, where sporadic clashes erupted with political and ethnic tensions running high following deadly weekend attacks.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Raila Odinga organised the demonstration to address what he says are major government failures, including worsening crime and insecurity, rising living costs, impunity, corruption and allegations of ethnic favouritism in government appointments.

"Parliament itself is part of the problem, it's a rogue parliament," Odinga told the crowd, who screamed wildly calling for President Uhuru Kenyatta "to go".

"Kenyans want issues that are in a mess to be addressed," said Odinga, dressed in a shirt with the colours of the Kenyan flag.

Soldiers and police surrounded Nairobi's central Uhuru ("Freedom") park, firing several rounds of tear gas to disperse chanting protesters after stones were thrown in sporadic clashes.

The rally, the culmination of a series of countrywide demonstrations, was held on the anniversary of a series of July 7 protests for multi-party democracy in the 1990s. The date has since become heavy with symbolism and is known commonly as "Saba-Saba", or "Seven-Seven" in Swahili.

Tear gas was also fired in Odinga's home town of Kisumu in western Kenya to disperse a crowd of several hundred angry youths.

Police said they deployed 15,000 officers to ensure the rally passed off peacefully, with the country already on high alert fearing attacks by Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab gunmen, who have vowed revenge for Kenya's military presence in Somalia.

The Shebab claimed twin attacks in Kenya's coastal region on Saturday night in which at least 21 were killed, the latest in a series of killings near the tourist island of Lamu.

Kenyatta, however, denied that the Shebab were involved and instead blamed "local political networks" and criminal gangs, saying victims had been singled out because of their ethnicity.

His comments were widely seen in Kenyan media as being directed at Odinga.

But Odinga, leader of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), has fiercely denied any link to the violence and condemned the attacks.

"Today Kenya looks like a military state, the police and the military are all over here yet people are been killed in Lamu," he said, waving at the lines of security officers.

"They have claimed that CORD are behind the killings in Lamu... that's childish talk."

Some supporters waved placards calling Odinga the "people's president", others draped themselves in strings of oranges, the party symbol.

- Hate speech warnings -

Tensions in the country are high. Some broadcasters were accused of whipping up ethnic divisions by the national communication authority in a statement printed in newspapers Monday.

"Some broadcast stations are taking advantage of the prevailing political situation in the country to air content containing hate speech," it said, warning individuals that "incitement to violence and advocacy of hatred" online on social media was a crime.

"Kenya could be approaching implosion unless all exercises maximum restraint," The Daily Nation newspaper warned in its editorial.

Foreign embassies urged citizens to stay away from the demonstration, and some Kenyans have returned to home areas fearing violence.

"Life has become too hard, especially for those in the small scale businesses," said protester Mary Achieng, 23, a hairdresser who works in a small township on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Bitter memories are still fresh from 2007, when elections escalated into ethnic conflict in which more than 1,200 people were killed, violence for which Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto face crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The 2007-8 violence erupted when Odinga accused then president Mwai Kibaki of rigging his way to re-election, but what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, the country's largest single group.

In turn, they launched reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of violence since independence in 1963.

Despite efforts to heal the wounds of the ethnic killings, tensions still run deep between communities, with many key grievances that fed into the violence -- most notably land ownership rights and claims that minorities are being marginalised -- still unresolved.