NAIROBI (AFP) — Kenya's political rivals on Wednesday resumed crunch talks to end weeks of bloodshed as the opposition threatened to take to the streets to protest a meeting of regional foreign ministers seen as boosting President Mwai Kibaki.
Police warned it was ready to crack down on protesters, saying demonstrations would jeopardize efforts to restore order in Kenya, which descended into ethnic violence after disputed elections in December.
As clashes claimed 19 lives in western Kenya, negotiators named by Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga were tackling the core political issues in talks led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
But the opposition angrily denounced a meeting of east African foreign ministers called by Kibaki in Nairobi, saying it was tantamount to recognizing him as head of state.
"The very legitimacy of Kibaki's position as president is in itself in question at the mediation talks," said Anyang Nyongo, the secretary general of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) on Tuesday.
An opposition official on Wednesday said their supporters were "on stand-by. They will demonstrate when the meeting starts."
Some of the foreign ministers from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda arrived on Wednesday and met with Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula, said a foreign ministry official.
"They will be here until Friday and they will discuss the restoration of peace in the country," said the official.
Annan had on Tuesday said the opposition would not go ahead with the protest threat, saying it ran against a pledge by both sides to refrain from provocative statements.
"We have discussed the issue of the statement that was issued and I think there is a clear understanding that it should not have been done and that there would be no mass protests," Annan told reporters.
The government has banned protests and police have opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators since the December elections that the opposition claims was rigged.
"As the situation returns to normal, Kenyan police are urging the public to keep order and to endeavour to promote good relations wherever they are," said national police spokesman Eric Kiraithe.
"We are urging the citizens of this country to avoid situations that could risk the normalcy achieved," he said, adding: "We will not allow demonstrations."
A police commander told AFP Wednesday that 19 people were killed in fighting since Sunday in the Trans Nzoia area of Rift Valley, which has been the epicentre of the post-election violence.
Twelve people died in western Kenya on Tuesday, nine of whom were shot by police cracking down on gangs who have torched houses and other property.
The Red Cross has put the death toll from weeks of violence at over 1,000 and said 300,000 people had been displaced, many of whom lost their homes in ethnic clashes.
The turmoil has delivered a major blow to Kenya's tourism industry, the top foreign currency earner, while tea production and agriculture have also been hard hit.
About 300 business leaders have come out in strong support of Annan's mediation effort and warned that the economy faced a meltdown if the crisis was not resolved quickly.
Safari resorts across Kenya and popular beach hotels in Mombasa have lost more than half of their business since the crisis erupted, they said, while tens of thousands of jobs have been lost.
In Nairobi, negotiations launched on January 29 between representatives of Kibaki and Odinga were delving into political issues and a possible power-sharing deal.
Both sides have officially rejected such an arrangement, with the opposition digging in it heels and refusing to recognize Kibaki's victory in the December 27 vote.
Annan has set a deadline of seven to 15 days to resolve the crisis.
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