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Kenyan Opposition Leader Rejects Bilateral Talks With President Kibaki

Even after days of intense international pressure, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and his political rival, opposition leader Raila Odinga, have yet to engage in dialogue to resolve a post-election dispute that has ignited ethnic tensions and is threatening to divide the country. At the same time, President Kibaki has announced several members of a new Cabinet, despite previous efforts to form a national unity government with opposition leader Odinga. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in Nairobi reports that there is enormous pressure on both men to meet face-to-face and find a political solution that can quickly calm the nation.

Several days of shuttle diplomacy conducted by influential figures such as South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer have failed to convince the opposition leader Raila Odinga to meet with President Kibaki.

On Tuesday, Mr. Odinga flatly rejected an offer by the Kenyan leader to meet at his official residence on Friday, saying Mr. Kibaki was using the planned meeting as a public relations gimmick.

The head of the African Union, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, is also expected to lead mediation efforts in the coming days.

A local political commentator and publisher Barrack Muluka says getting Mr. Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu, and Mr. Odinga, an ethnic Luo to the negotiating table would be a significant first step to ending the countrywide killing spree that has largely pitted ethnic Kikuyus against ethnic Luos and other tribes, who support the opposition.

The violence killed as many as 600 people and displaced 255,000 others since December 30.

"If they engage constructively, then the starting point would be how do we work together and beyond working together in the short term, how do we ensure that, in the future, this kind of situation does not happen again," said Muluka. "In the long term, they must talk about the possibility of working together in a transitional kind of arrangement that prepares the ground for the future."

Kenyans voted peacefully in record numbers in parliamentary and presidential elections on December 27. But the opposition says the final tally, giving Mr. Kibaki a narrow win over Raila Odinga, was rigged. The opposition has demanded the president's resignation and fresh elections to be held within the next three months.

International observers and allies, including the United States, agree that the vote count, conducted by Kenya's electoral commission, lacked credibility. The Kibaki government has resisted calls for an investigation, insisting that complaints about the election must first go through the courts.

A former Kenyan parliament member Waihenya Kihoro says the country's judiciary is widely perceived as being biased toward the Kibaki government and would not be able to deliver an uncontested verdict.

Kihoro says he believes the opposition demand of holding fresh elections quickly is also unrealistic because the much-criticized Electoral Commission of Kenya would have to be replaced an independent body and the process is likely to be time-consuming.

"At the end of the day, if the problem has arisen because of flawed election, the remedy is a re-run of the elections, a power-sharing arrangement in the interim," said Kihoro. "The outcome of the elections was not acceptable not only to the opposition, but also to a majority of Kenyans because now, even people who voted for Kibaki feel very unhappy about what has happened."

A sociology professor at University of Nairobi, Paul Mbatia, predicts much of the violence and ethnic bloodletting will stop, if the two Kenyan leaders, who were once political allies, begin pursuing genuine reconciliation and reject tribalism.

"The moment they see these leaders together talking, that will have solved half of the problem," said Mbatia. "As long as they talk and as long as they can convince Kenyans that something is being worked out by the two parties, Kenyans will wait. But as long as they are just communicating through the media, the divide remains very wide and making it very clear that we are nowhere near a consensus."

The United States says Kenya's political crisis will not be resolved simply by - in the words of Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer - dishing out political seats, but by addressing the root causes that triggered the unrest.