Kenyan gang clashes with police, at least 4 killed

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A notorious criminal gang exchanged gunfire with police and put up blazing roadblocks Monday, threatening to spread violence nationwide unless authorities free their leader in an unsettling new danger for Kenya's bloody postelection crisis.

The upheaval started before dawn and killed at least four people as members of the outlawed Mungiki gang protested the death of their imprisoned leader's wife, who authorities said was found beheaded last week.

"This is lawlessness and sheer madness," said Joseph Kanyiri, a district commissioner in Nairobi.

He said the fighting was gang-related and not connected to the flawed Dec. 27 presidential election that set off weeks of bloodshed among rival factions and tribes.

The outbreak comes at a precarious time for Kenya, which just got a power-sharing government that was formed under international pressure in hopes of ending fighting that killed more than 1,000 people after the disputed election.

President Mwai Kibaki named opposition leader Raila Odinga as prime minister Sunday. It is the first time Kenya will have both a president and prime minister, but the two men have long had a frosty relationship and there are worries over whether the coalition can hold together.

Members of the Mungiki, a quasi-religious sect linked to a string of beheadings, took to the streets Monday in several cities, including Nairobi's slums and the western town of Naivasha -- areas that in January and February saw some of the worst postelection violence.

Gang members traded gunshots with police just feet from makeshift tent camps housing some of the 300,000 Kenyans who fled the election fighting.

In Nairobi's Dandora slum -- a hotbed of Mungiki activity -- 13-year-old Dorian Opio peeked out the gates of her primary school as riot police fired bullets and tear gas shells down alleys. Black smoke billowed from a flaming police station next door.

"I don't know if I should walk home," Opio said. "I think maybe I should go. All the other students left, but I don't know how I'll get there."

Gang members, who didn't want to be quoted by name for fear of government reprisals, said two people were killed in Dandora. Two people were shot dead in Central province, regional police chief Philip Ndwiga said.

The protesters demanded the release of their leader, Maina Njenga, from prison, and accused police of being behind the death of Njenga's wife and the gang's acting leader last week.

"We will not stop demonstrating," said Joe Waiganjo of the Kenya National Youth Alliance, the political wing of the Mungiki.

A spokesman for the national police, Eric Kiraithe, denied any police involvement in the killings.

"That is totally false accusations. Why do the police want to kill this woman?" he asked. "If we are interested in the wife of the criminal, we would have taken her to court."

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