Kenya World-Class Runners Accused of Fueling Violence

Some of Kenya's world-class runners are helping to fuel, fund and even direct some of the country's deadly ethnic violence, according to a respected human rights group.

In a new report, "Kenya in Crisis," the International Crisis Group (ICG) alleges that many of the most decorated runners have military backgrounds which they have used for "training and sometimes commanding the raiders."

The death last month of former Olympian Lukas Sang, a sprinter who represented Kenya in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, was initially reported as one more tragic casualty of the violence that has swept the country since last December's elections. But the ICG says that many of the accounts it documented suggest that Sang, an ex-army corporal, actually died while commanding one of the militias.

In other cases, the ICG says the runners have helped to finance ethnic raiding to further their own economic and tribal interests.

"The athletes have made fortunes from competing in international track and field events and have transformed some of the depressed and sleepy rural villages in the region by investing in farmland and other real estate," says the report. It alleges that economic interests and tribal loyalty is the driving force behind this support. "The motivation for giving the raiders cash and transport is said to be partly economic. They allegedly want the Kikuyus evicted so they can take their farms and property."

Athletics Kenya, the governing board that manages Kenyan athletes representing the country, calls the ICG's allegations "outrageous."

"Our athletes have brought a lot of fame to this country," David Okeyo, the secretary general of Athletics Kenya told ABC News. "These allegations are not true unless proved so."

At least 1,000 Kenyans have been killed and close to half a million have been displaced since fighting broke out between ethnic groups in the country. The Rift Valley, home to the Kalenjin tribe of which many athletes hail, has been the epicenter for most of the violence. Kalenjin militias have targeted members of President Mwai Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyus, by burning them alive in churches, burning down thousands of homes and driving hundreds of thousands away from the Rift Valley.

Athletics Kenya is asking the government to demand proof from ICG and for additional protection for runners, who Okeyo says have been threatened because of the allegations. With the 2008 Olympics this summer, athletes are in prime training season. Okeyo calls these new allegations another "distraction" on top of the already disrupted training schedule due to the violence.

"The athletes are so angry. Most of our top-class athletes are in training," says Okeyo. "We had to cancel some of our events because there's no way our athletes could travel to them."

Francois Grignon, the Africa program director for ICG, told ABC News that the group's findings are accurate.

"Our work is based on extensive field work on the ground. We don't make allegations based on hearsay; the implications came out because of that field work," he said.

Grignon calls the idea that the Rift Valley athletic community hasn't been involved at all with the post-election violence "naïve."

"It is a major economic activity and involves hundreds of people from the Rift Valley and is linked to local politics," he says.

On calls for turning over evidence to the police, Grignon says that is not the role of ICG.

"Our job is not to prosecute. Our job is to bring attention to risks of future violence in the country, which remain very high," he says.

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