Kenyan churches blame gov’t for explosions at rally; police comb park as death toll rises to 6

By Tom Odula, AP
Monday, June 14, 2010

Kenyan churches blame gov’t for blasts at rally

NAIROBI, Kenya — The National Council of Churches accused Kenya’s government on Monday of involvement in a grenade attack on a rally against a draft constitution that would allow abortions in life-threatening pregnancies and recognize Islamic courts.

The accusation over Sunday evening’s attack, which killed six people, could set a contentious tone between the groups supporting and opposing the draft constitution, which the country votes on Aug. 4. Political analysts said leaders of the groups needed to tamp down emotions or violence could flare.

The August referendum will be the first nationwide vote since Kenya’s 2007 presidential election, which saw more than 1,000 people killed following days of rampaging violence after the contentious vote.

Political leaders on Monday tried to separate the blasts, which the police said were caused by grenades, from the political issues around the referendum. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the attack was an “isolated case.” But the National Council of Churches blamed the attack on the government and supporters of the draft constitution.

“Having been informed over and over that the passage of the new constitution during the referendum is a government project, we are left in no doubt that the government, either directly or indirectly, had a hand in this attack. Who else in this country holds explosive devices?” said a statement by the council and 14 other churches and groups.

President Mwai Kibaki said in a statement that Kenyans need to “embrace tolerance and accommodation, regardless of each other’s views.” The government appealed for calm and to avoid speculation on the attacks.

Kenya’s president and prime minister support the new constitution, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Kenyans to embrace constitutional reform during a speech here last week. But prominent politicians and Kenya’s church leaders want the draft defeated because of allowances for abortion and Islamic courts that deal with family matters, issues opposed by conservative U.S. groups.

The U.S. Embassy condemned the attacks and noted that Biden last week during a nationally televised speech told Kenyans to “resist those who try to divide you based on ethnicity or religion or region, and above all, fear. It is a tool as old as mankind, and it’s been used with great effect in this country in the past.”

Wafula Okumu, a senior research fellow in South Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, said that if investigations point to either side of the referendum campaigns being involved, it would have “far-reaching implications.” He said that constitutional campaigns are supposed to bring a country together, not divide it.

“Now the politicians need to be cool, they need to stop pointing fingers and instigating their supporters. The onus is upon the politicians to show coolness and maturity,” said Okumu.

The two blasts ripped through a downtown Nairobi park at dusk Sunday as a rally against the constitutional draft was concluding. Some of the more than 100 people wounded were hit by the blasts, but others were wounded as the crowd of thousands stampeded out of the park after the second explosion.

Hussein Khalid, the head of Muslims For Human Rights, said he did not believe it was the constitution’s abortion or Islamic courts clauses specifically that fueled the attack, but the campaigns against and in favor of the referendum in general. He said both sides could benefit from an attack — the ‘no’ campaign might see attendance lowered at rallies but could gain sympathy voters.

“However, we do not want to give the incident credence. The more we talk about it the more we would assist them (the attackers) to achieve their goal because we will be giving the incident prominence,” he said.

Don Deya, the CEO of the Pan-African Lawyers Union, said that Kenya’s history of political violence means there may be retaliatory attacks. He said police should meet with campaign leaders and increase security.

The last major bombing in Nairobi was in 1998, when the U.S. embassies here and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were hit simultaneously, killing 225 people in an attack blamed on al-Qaida. More than 1,000 people died in the postelection violence of 2007-08. No leaders of that violence have been held to account, but the attacks are being investigated by the International Criminal Court.

“The fact that no real action has been taken against the perpetrators of the postelection violence does not send the message to the youth or the financiers of violence that there will be a price to pay for engaging in divisive or inciting action,” Deya said.

Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso contributed to this report.

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