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NAIROBI - Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga said yesterday he had called off protests because a "mediation process" to resolve the political crisis was about to begin.
Odinga said after meeting US envoy Jendayi Frazer: "We are now assured that the mediation process is about to start. We are therefore informing our supporters countrywide that there will be no public rallies today."
The death toll from Kenya's post-election violence has risen to 486, with about 255000 people displaced in one of the nation's worst moments since 1963 independence from Britain, the government said yesterday.
The figures from the ministry of special programmes were a large rise on the previous death-toll of about 350 from unrest across east Africa's largest economy since the December 27 vote that gave President Mwai Kibaki a disputed re-election.
While most of the country largely returned to calm, there was an unconfirmed report from Uganda that 30 Kenyans drowned after being pursued by attackers into a river on the border. Police on the Kenyan side could not confirm this.
The turmoil has marred Kenya's image as a bastion of stability in east Africa and threatened its economy - the region's largest.
Odinga, 63, faces the dilemma of responding to international pressure to avoid anything that might provoke more violence while also maintaining momentum to oust Kibaki.
"Nobody wants to spill blood, but democracy has no short- cut," Odinga's aide Tony Gachoka said.
Kibaki's government accused Odinga of "grandstanding" and perpetuating the unrest.
Fanning the controversy, the Law Society of Kenya called for Kibaki to step down and for fresh polls, saying the election was not "credible" and the announcement of a winner "unacceptable."
AU chairman John Kufuor, Ghana's president, was due to visit this week to try to mediate between Odinga and Kibaki. Their mutual distrust is a key obstacle to a solution.
Kibaki is ready to form "a government of national unity", but Odinga wants him to renounce the presidency, hold talks through an international mediator and enter a "transitional arrangement" prior to a new vote.
Throughout the country of 36million people, Kenyans were struggling to come to terms with some of the worst violence in their nation since independence.
The poor in city slums and rural areas have been the worst hit by the violence, with the political elite and other well-off Kenyans and expatriates largely unaffected in gated compounds.
Odinga had looked on course to win until Kibaki, 76, was handed a narrow victory. Both sides alleged fraud and international observers say the election fell short of democratic standards.
The dispute unleashed protests, riots and anarchy that have left refugees scattered across a nation more used to helping those fleeing from countries like Sudan and Somalia.
Eleven UN world food programme trucks were heading to western Kenya, heart of the refugee crisis, under escort yesterday, with enough food to feed 38000 people for two weeks.
Much of the trouble has pitched opposition supporters against members of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, including the massacre of about 30 people sheltering in a church near Eldoret, a town in western Kenya with decades-old land tensions.
Kenyans are aghast at images beamed across the world of the chaos in their nation, a popular tourist destination and regional base for numerous international institutions.
But many are also offended at superficial depictions of tribal warfare that do not explore the other causes of the violence: land disputes dating back to colonial times, wealth disparities and incitement by politicians.
But there was concern at population shifts sparked by the turmoil, most notably Kikuyus fleeing to their central highland homelands between Nairobi and Mount Kenya.
Several hundred Luos, some with injuries, sheltered at a police station in Tigoni, about 30km north of Nairobi. They complained of harassment by returning Kikuyus.
Nairobi has returned to some semblance of normality with a cacophony of horns from minibuses signalling the start of the year's first proper rush hour.
An electricity meter-reader making his rounds chuckled kazi iendelee, meaning work continues, Kibaki's election slogan. - Reuters