As criminals take advantage of postelection violence, Kenyans turn vigilante

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By KATHARINE HOURELD

Associated Press Writer

KISUMU, Kenya (AP) -- Children clustered around the charred body, its features melted into an unrecognizable black mask. The man, accused of being a thief, was the fourth person to be burned alive this month in this western Kenyan city.

Residents say they are carrying out their own punishments against criminals because police have been too busy coping with Kenya's postelection chaos to prevent theft and looting.

"People are taking advantages of the skirmishes and stealing from other people," said Dorothy Atieno, a primary school teacher, as she stared at the corpse in Kisumu. "This is an example to them."

The vigilante violence is just part of the breakdown of a country once considered a model for political stability and economic growth in Africa. Clashes sparked by a disputed Dec. 27 election have deteriorated in many cases into ethnic violence pitting other groups against the Kikuyu, linked to the embattled president and long resented for their prominence in politics and the economy. Faith has been undermined in institutions including the police, accused of responding to demonstrations with excessive force, and political parties, accused of fomenting violence.

At least 1,000 people have died and homes have been torched across the country, sending hundreds of thousands into refugee camps.

Although there are hopes for a breakthrough agreement in talks between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, the violence has already devastated the economy, scaring off tourists and forcing hotels and other businesses to fire employees.

On one recent day in Kisumu, several hundred youths, some armed with machetes and stones, taunted police loading a corpse into the back of a van -- another victim of vigilante attacks.

"We call the police and they don't come. When we kill them (criminals), that's when they come," said resident Dorothy Sijenyi as she watched the scene.

Two other people accused of stealing were killed and burned in Kisumu this month, and two others were attacked but survived, a health official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Vigilante attacks are not new in Kisumu, a city of 504,000 people, but the health official said he was alarmed by the recent spate of assaults. Usually, he said, there is about one attack a month on an alleged thief.

Kisumu, an opposition stronghold, suffered some of the worst violence after Kibaki was announced as the winner of an election that foreign and domestic observers agree was deeply flawed.

Almost every member of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe fled the city as people from rival ethnic groups took the streets. No Kikuyu-owned shop or business remains open -- all have been smashed, looted and burned. They have been stripped even of their corrugated iron roofs.

Now that the town has been emptied of Kikuyus, gangs are looking for new targets, residents say.

Haroun Wandalo said young men armed with machetes have demanded to search his house three times in the past weeks even though he belongs to an ethnic groups that voted for the opposition.

"Initially it was about Kikuyus. Now looking for Kikuyus is just an excuse to loot your property," said Haroun Wandalo.

Now, the mild-mannered, bespectacled cafe owner guards his house with a machete and his neighborhood has set up its own watch system.

National police spokesman Eric Kiraithe denied that police have been slow to respond to crime, saying officers have been ordered to patrol more frequently and answer complaints faster.

But he acknowledged there was a surge in crime in January, with more break-ins recorded that month than for all of 2007 and the rape rate rocketing to its highest level in six years.

Kiraithe said he could not confirm the vigilante attacks in Kisumu, though he said police were investigating many unexplained murders.

In the town of Limuru, about 12 miles from Nairobi, two men were lynched Wednesday for trying to tell women how to dress, he said. One died and the other was saved by police. The next day, a suspected thief was killed in the town of Naivasha on the outskirts of the capital, he said.

In Eldoret, a town near Kisumu, Joel Kirorei supervised the reconstruction of his hotel after it was burned to the ground in the postelection violence.

"Most of these youths are unemployed," he said. "They have nothing to do and now they are used to free things."

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Associated Press Writer Katy Pownall contributed to this report.