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Aid Group: Forgotten Conflict in Western Kenya Displaces Tens of Thousands

The international aid organization Doctors Without Borders says fighting between the army and militia groups in western Kenya's Mount Elgon Region has displaced tens of thousands of people over the last two years, in what the group says has become a disastrous, but widely ignored conflict. Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi.

In a report released on Tuesday, Doctors Without Borders accused the Kenyan military of extra-judicial killings and torture as it combats a militia group known as the Sabaot Defense Land Force in the area surrounding western Kenya's Mount Elgon.

Doctors Without Borders said it had treated more than 250 injured people, mostly men, in the month after the Kenyan military launched an offensive this spring to root out members of the militia. Any male older than 13 years was considered a potential member of the militia, and many were beaten.

The SDLF has also committed abuses against civilians in the two years since it began fighting to reclaim land it says was unfairly allocated, according to Doctors Without Borders. An estimated 600 people have been killed and 60,000 driven from their homes.

The immediate conflict around Mount Elgon has eased in the weeks since the military operation. But the plight of civilians has not improved and many do not have even the most basic supplies, such as blankets, food and shelter. Doctors Without Borders says people there are "radically impoverished" and severely traumatized.

Remi Carrier heads the Doctors Without Borders Kenya office.

"We have seen a population that has been trapped in between the violence from this militia and the violent response from the authorities and the police," he said. "Their houses were burnt either by the militia or by the police. We saw ghost villages and people had to flee. We have seen a very high level of trauma, fear and terror amongst the most vulnerable."

Kenya's security forces have repeatedly denied allegations of rights abuses in Mount Elgon. But regardless of blame, Jerome Oberreit, the director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, says the response from both the Kenyan government and the humanitarian community has come nowhere close to matching the extent of the disaster.

"Clearly what the civilian population of Mount Elgon has gone through over two years is unacceptable," he said. "The few organizations that are there is really minimal compared to the capacity that we're used to seeing in Kenya. And this is again a surprise to us, why so little attention, why so little effort has been directed to this population in Mount Elgon and again we really hope that the coming year will lead to a much broader based level of assistance."

The dispute in Mount Elgon has its roots in many of the problems that have plagued Kenya for years and were partly responsible for the country's post-election violence in January. People in the country's remote regions say they have long been neglected by the government in Nairobi, while local politicians have exploited ethnic tensions and resentment over post-colonial land distribution.