(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

More than 50 killed in Tana River clashes

Fourteen people were killed in renewed violent clashes on Sunday between Orma and Pokomo communities in Tana River District, eastern Kenya, bringing the death toll from fighting in the district to more than 50 in the last week.

A group of some 100 armed Orma pastoralists attacked the Pokomo farming community at Handa Mpya village in Galole Division, killing at least fourteen people, seriously injuring at least 20 others, and burning down some 80 manyattas (dwellings), Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) radio service reported on Sunday.

Heavy fighting also occurred on Thursday 6 December in villages around the provincial capital of Hola.

"We are on high alert after Thursday's sporadic attacks in Hola, Galole, Wanje and the worst-hit Gafuru village where 20 people were killed," Tana River District Commissioner James Waweru was quoted as saying by the Daily Nation newspaper.

Coast Deputy Police Officer Emmanuel Mwachiti said 52 people had been killed in the latest outbreak of violence, KBC reported.

Many people from villages around Hola had fled their homes and sought safety by moving near to Hola police station, Pius Murithi, Assistant Development Coordinator for the international nongovernmental organisation Caritas told IRIN on Tuesday.

"We think about 150 people are now staying in the open by the side of a road junction for safety reasons," Murithi added.

Displaced persons at Hola police station were overwhelmingly women and children, as almost all the men had moved away for fear of being beaten by police, according to Murithi.

"The police are running around and arresting people, but they do not have enough resources [to investigate properly] and the terrain is very difficult," he said.

The latest conflict in Tana River was initially triggered in December 2000 by a controversial land adjudication programme, which could have given the Pokomo title deeds to the land on which they farm, according to regional analysts.

The Orma community feared this could lead to loss of access to vital grazing lands, and their opposition to the programme has put the land adjudication process on hold indefinitely, they said.

The most recent upsurge in violence began on Monday 3 December when Orma herdsmen launched what appeared to be revenge attack after they accused the Pokomos of stealing 100 head of cattle and 74 goats, according to Waweru.

While the Pokomo accuse the Orma of allowing livestock to encroach on their farms and of destroying their crops, the Orma complain that Pokomo farmlands are too close to the banks of the Tana River and prevent the herders from using the river to water their cattle.

According to Murithi, the two communities are no longer fighting over land and water issues but appear to have become trapped in a spiral of violence.

"It is not possible to explain precisely why they are fighting now," he told IRIN.

Kenyan religious leaders have criticised the government for failing to bring an end to the violence, which has now claimed some 130 lives over the last year.

"President Moi has done little to address the problem in Tana River. He has not even bothered to visit the area since the fighting started in February," Sheikh Ali Shee, chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, was quoted as saying by the Daily Nation of Sunday 9 December.

"It is very sad that people are being brutally killed every day and yet they [the government] seem to have totally ignored what is going on," said Bishop Julius Kalu of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

According to Murithi, local MPs had so far failed to visit the region - a move which could help reduce tensions in the district.

"It is not possible to know why the politicians have not said something, and still have not visited the area," he said.

Some 1,200 Pokomo people displaced by fighting on 20 November, and forced to shelter in the Catholic Church mission in the village of Tarasaa are still unable to return home. The group, who had had their homes burned down, have said they plan to sue the Kenyan government for compensation.

Murithi told IRIN that since mid-November entire villages around Tarasaa had been burned to the ground, and that people had fled in all directions, many seeking sanctuary with relatives in areas as yet unaffected by the unrest.

Although it was difficult to assess how many people had been displaced throughout Tana River, Murithi estimated that almost all the population of Garsen and Kipini divisions had had to leave their homes.

"It is all confusion," he added.

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