NAIVASHA - Protests erupted in west Kenya and machete-wielding mobs faced off in the Rift Valley on Monday after dozens died in ethnic violence that complicated mediation efforts by former U.N. boss Kofi Annan.
In the normally peaceful Rift Valley town of Nakuru, a mortuary worker said on Monday that 64 corpses were lying in the morgue, all victims of the past four days of ethnic fighting.
Gangs from rival communities have been fighting each other with machetes, clubs and bows and arrows in Nakuru and Naivasha, another town in the region.
"It's 64 so far since the fighting started. Some of them have cut wounds, some are hurt from arrows, and some have been burned," the mortuary worker in Nakuru told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Eight people were burned to death locked inside one house in the region.
The violence since Kenya's Dec. 27 election has now gathered a momentum of its own -- linked to decades-old land disputes, wealth inequalities and past British colonial rule -- and pushed the death toll up to around 800 people.
The number of 250,000 refugees, from one of Kenya's darkest episodes since 1963 independence, looked likely to swell as thousands more fled the chaos in Naivasha and Nakuru.
In the pro-opposition western town of Kisumu on Monday, police fired teargas and bullets in the air as several thousand people took to the streets to complain about the deaths of members of their Luo ethnic community in the Rift Valley.
"Almost the whole of Kisumu is up in smoke," said Eric Odhiambo, a motorcycle taxi-driver. "People are mad at killings of Luo in Naivasha yesterday. The police are firing teargas and shooting in the sky ... But there are so many rioters."
The dispute over President Mwai Kibaki's re-election -- which the opposition says was rigged -- has plunged Kenya into a spiral of violence, battering its image as an east African trade and tourism hub and one of the continent's more stable nations.
LAND, TRIBAL ISSUES
While the initial focus of protests was the tallying of the presidential vote, which local and foreign observers said was flawed, rivalries over land, business and power dating back to Kenya's 1963 independence have now come to the fore.
Analysts say colonial Britain's divide-and-rule policies among different communities created wounds that have festered since, worsened by unfair post-independence land policies.
Attacks in the immediate aftermath of Kibaki's win were mainly against his Kikuyu tribe -- the largest and richest in Kenya -- but members of that group, including the outlawed Mungiki gang, have begun fighting back, Kenyans say.
In Naivasha, a 1,000-strong group of mainly Kikuyus brandishing axes, sticks, machetes and hammers faced off with several hundred Luos -- some of whom were also armed -- asking to be allowed to leave the town, a Reuters witness said.
Dozens of riot police kept the two groups apart as they faced off right outside the Lake Naivasha Country Club, near the town's famous lake, usually a popular tourist attraction.
"We want these Luos to go back home. They chased and killed our people. Now we want the same thing to happen to them," said Kikuyu protester Joseph Maina, holding a plank of wood.
Reuters verified 19 deaths in Naivasha on Sunday, and 27 round Nakuru since Thursday. Local media reported dozens more.
A correspondent in Naivasha heard screams into the night.
Mobs stopped cars on the main highway and demanded passengers' identity cards. One man was beaten before being kicked under the wheels of a minibus as it sped to safety.
Negotiators led by Annan have told the rival camps of Kibaki, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, to select four representatives each and study a blueprint for further talks in the next 24 hours, an official involved in the mediation said.
Odinga said gangs were operating with state connivance.
"Criminal gangs, on a killing spree, working under police protection, are part of a well-orchestrated plan of terror, to spread and escalate the violence," he told reporters. "The government is doing this to try to influence mediation efforts to divert from electoral malpractice to security and violence."
Government officials accuse opposition leaders of deliberately whipping up supporters against Kikuyus.
Police said arrests were being made and calm returning.
Annan visited trouble-spots over the weekend and said the crisis in Kenya had gone well beyond an electoral dispute. He denounced "gross and systematic" rights abuses.