Diplomatic push to resolve the political crisis in Kenya is set to enter high gear this week as African Union Chairman John Kufuor is due to arrive in the country Tuesday.
Kufuor, who is also the Ghanaian President, comes after his Kenyan counterpart Mwai Kibaki has invited opposition leader Raila Odinga for face-to-face talks over disputed elections.
The AU chairman's visit also comes after U.S. top African diplomat Jendayi Fraser prepared to leave the Kenyan capital Nairobi Monday, having leveled the ground for the start of political and constitutional talks aimed at ending a post-electoral crisis.
Frazer told a news conference in Nairobi that Washington has not given up on Kenya as a regional leader in East Africa despite the disputed electoral process.
She said the Kenyan people, the media and the civil society had demonstrated "Kenyans were able to call themselves from the brink."
"Kenya is still a strong regional player. The bottom-line is this has not taken away our confidence in Kenya as a regional hub," she told journalists in Nairobi.
The political crisis, she said, had affected regional stability, including interfering with the rotation of the Ugandan peacekeepers in the war-scarred Somalia and also prevented the deployment of the Burundian peacekeeping troops to Somalia, mainly due to lack of fuel.
Kibaki, who was re-elected after the disputed vote tally, invited Odinga late Monday to the State House for a meeting Friday to discuss how to end the political and ethnic turmoil that has already killed more than 450 people.
But in a rejoinder, Odinga who says he was cheated of victory in the Dec. 27 elections dismissed the invitation as the public relations exercise.
The 62-year-old opposition leader who has asked President Kibaki to step down before any mediation takes place, said the incumbent was out to hoodwink members of the international community.
"The invitation is a public relations exercise. Kibaki should wait the arrival of the African Union chairman because we want to address justice," Odinga said, according to Kenya Television Network (KTN).
"Kufour confirmed to me on the phone that he was invited by Kibaki to head the mediation talks. This is a great step ahead, a very important initiative," Odinga said.
"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 (Tuesday)."
Observers say a mainly troubling aspect of the political violence has been its degeneration in some areas into rioting, pitting other tribes against Kibaki's Kikuyu, long dominant in Kenya's politics and economy.
Fraser said the talks with the two leaders had revealed a softening of their hardline political stance and opened the doors for the arrival Tuesday of Ghanaian President Kufuor, during which talks on widespread constitutional, institutional and legal reforms were expected to create a way out of the political impasse in the east African nation.
Washington also demanded that the rival Kenyan factions place the issue of institutional, legal and constitutional reforms on the table as they prepare for "long-long" detailed negotiations on ways of ending the political stalemate.
The US has also underscored the urgent need to appease disgruntled Kenyans who voted for the opposition.
"The worst of all that has happened cannot be called as genocide," said Fraser, an under-secretary of state for African Affairs who was dispatched by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to tame the widespread post-electoral violence.
"The only way to restore the Kenyan people's rights and confidence in the system is that the political leaders have to stop the violence, because innocent people are dying," said Fraser.
A statement from the Ministry of Special Programs put the death toll in violence since the Dec. 28 elections at 486 with some 255, 000 people displaced from their homes.
The talks in Nairobi come amid warnings by UN officials that a humanitarian crisis was worsening across Kenya, with the west and the Rift Valley worst hit.
Odinga accused Kibaki of rigging the Dec. 27 elections in his favor. Both sides have accused the other of committing acts of genocide.
Leaders of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) opposition party have called for new elections but the government has said it will accept that proposition, but only if a court orders a new vote.
"It is our firm belief that Kenya will be able to solve this crisis and emerge out of it stronger. Our priority is to ensure that nobody loses their life because of the politics," Fraser told a news conference at the US ambassador's official residence.
She said talks with President Kibaki did not discuss the possibilities of a presidential run-off, a key demand by the opposition.
The developments came as President Kibaki reconvened parliament for Jan. 15 to pave way for the election of the Speaker and discuss urgent matters.
Odinga's ODM party won a majority in parliament but does not have the two thirds needed for a vote of no-confidence in the president.
Meanwhile, police said the authorities were taking what he called "concrete actions" to address the security situation in the country, including moving human cargo in convoys.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said 879 vehicles were escorted Monday morning to various long-haul destinations in Kenya, not because the roads were unsafe, but because the Police were concerned about the personal security of the drivers and the goods.
(Xinhua News Agency January 8, 2008)