A Kenyan human rights organization has accused the country's military of torturing thousands of people during an operation targeting a militia in the country's western Mt. Elgon region. As Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, other groups have raised similar charges since the operation began in March, but the military has denied responsibility.

The Independent Medico-Legal Unit says as many as 4,000 people have been tortured during a military operation seeking to root out the Sabaot Land Defense Force militia in the Mt. Elgon region of Western Kenya.

The group based its estimate on interviews with 119 prisoners being held at a prison in the area. The organization's legal officer, Vincent Kodongo says police have rounded up men from the community and handed them over to the military, where officers often torture the suspects even before their involvement with the militia has been assessed.

"It is primarily men from the Sabaot community. It is just any males from the Sabaot community," he said. "Then after being tortured at some stage is when they are screened. Even if you are found not to be guilty you are still tortured and then released."

Among other methods of torture, the report says military officers have forced detainees to crawl on barbed wire, whip one another, pull one another's genitals, and endure beatings.

The group says Kenya's Ministry of Defense is fully aware of the use of torture. But Defense Minister Yusuf Haji has denied accusations.

"Our troops have investigated the allegations of torture where this is possible and found no evidence whatsoever to support the claims," he said.

The Independent Medico-Legal Unit report follows similar allegations earlier this month by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Western Kenya Human Rights Watch, a local organization. Those groups described rights abuses by both the Sabaot Land Defense Force and the Kenyan military, accusing the latter of unlawful killings, torture, and rape.

The Independent Medico-Legal Unity warns that the tactics may not be effective in promoting security. Kodongo says the majority of those detained are likely to be released for lack of evidence.

"So all of them will be acquitted and they will come out further hardened," he said. "What will have happened is the military will not have helped in identifying who is the militia and they will not have solved anything."

The Sabaot Land Defense Force has been blamed for hundreds of deaths in the past two years in a conflict over land distribution, and Human Rights Watch has accused the group of chopping off limbs among other abuses. In early March, the military launched an extensive operation against the militia. The military prevented the media from accessing much of the area.

Members of parliament from the Rift Valley region have urged the government to call off the Mt. Elgon operation

Conflicts over land in the Mt. Elgon region have been a problem since long before the violence that followed Kenya's December elections. The military was accused of torture in another operation in the area in the early 1990s. But the grievances mirror those in other parts of the Rift Valley that suffered some of the worst post-election clashes.