Kenya on the Brink? Ethnic Violence Continues

Hoping to stem the rising tide of violence in Kenya's post-election crisis, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan today began a formal mediation process between the country's two main political leaders.

Annan is in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where he announced that a "dialogue process" to help resolve the dispute would begin next week.

But hours before the announcement, gunmen assassinated an opposition lawmaker as he was driving home in Nairobi, triggering new flare-ups in the ethnic fighting that has gripped Kenya since its disputed presidential election last month.

To the west of Nairobi, in the ethnically divided Rift Valley, government helicopters fired on crowds of protesters in the town of Naivasha.

President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga appeared with Annan, who said he was confident the "immediate political issues" could be resolved within four weeks and the broader issues causing the crisis could be resolved within a year.

"To the leaders gathered here today I say that the people want you to take charge of the situation and do whatever possible to halt the downward spiral that is threatening this beautiful and prosperous country," Annan said at a press conference.

At least in public, Kenya's feuding political leaders appear to agree on the need for amicable negotiations.

Kibaki declared that he and Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), must take a leading role in working together to stop the fighting.

"Our nation is at a crossroads," said Kibaki. "We stand here during the defining moment when we must all make the decision that we must regain the dignity of our nation, and restore the stability."

The opposition, which won the most seats in parliament, accuses Kibaki of stealing the presidential vote.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also appealed today for Kenya's political leaders to broker a peaceful end to ethnic violence.

"There needs to be a political resolution of this conflict. The election was not one that inspired confidence in the Kenyan people," Rice said.

Since the Dec. 27 election, the death toll across the country — once among the most stable in Africa — has soared to more than 800.

Much of the violence has pitted other tribes against Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, long resented for its dominance of Kenyan politics and business.

Rice said she will soon speak with Annan herself to ask what more the United States and other countries can do.

Parliamentarian Mugabe Were, who was shot to death as he drove home, was among a slew of opposition members who won seats in a legislative vote held alongside the presidential election.

"This is a very bad moment in our country's history," Salim Loane, ODM spokesman, told ABC News. "We have had almost a thousand people killed already and today an elected member of parliament was also killed."

Loane appealed for calm. "We must not fall into the trap of [Were's] murderers. Violence will never end if each outrage is responded to by anger alone. We must pursue our cause peacefully," Loane said.

After Were's assassination, a witness told ABC News that throngs of mourners gathered at his home in a neighborhood near Kibera — Nairobi's largest slum and a stronghold of the Luo tribe, which mainly supports Odinga and the ODM.

"They made bonfires out of old tires," the witness said, "and blocked the road. Police finally moved in and fired tear gas at the crowds in order to get them to disperse."

Similar scenes convulsed western Kenya today, where police moved in to quell violent protests.

In the Rift Valley, about 5,000 people set fire to homes and smashed shop windows in Naivasha, dragging away goods.

A police helicopter and two military helicopters then flew over the crowd and officers began shooting, sending people running in panic.

Witnesses reported seeing helicopters swoop down, with officers firing on a mob of armed Kikuyus who were pinning down hundreds of Luos outside the Naivasha Country Club.

Kikuyus, armed with machetes and clubs inset with nails, had prevented the Luos from escaping for two days.

The Rift Valley has seen some of the worst of the post-election violence. At least 90 people were killed there over the weekend. Dana Hughes contributed to this report.