KENYA: Security improves in Mt Elgon but fear remains

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Security in the Mt Elgon region of western Kenya, where the army was deployed in March to stop a local insurgency, has improved, but civilians still fear being targeted in the ongoing operation.

"There is an improved sense of security and people are able to access the markets more," Sokwony Laikong, a local resident, told IRIN on 10 April. Most farmers were now able to reach their gardens, although they were suffering from high prices of inputs, such as fertilizer.

Many schools remained closed in the area, but some had reopened in Chebyuk, where the children were being taught by a few volunteers and government teachers, Laikong added.

There was, however, anxiety among residents in some parts of the district, such as Chepkitale area, which borders a forest. Scared they could be targeted, they said security operations had continued because militias were hiding in the forest.

A spokesman for the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) said it had set up medical camps in the neighbouring district of Bungoma and at least 1,600 people had sought treatment as of 1 April.

Most had soft tissue injuries and minor bruises, according to KRCS Public Relations Manager, Anthony Mwangi.

The clashes in Mt Elgon have pitted security forces against the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), an armed group formed in 2005 to resist government attempts to evict squatters in the Chebyuk area.

Human rights groups blame the group for killings more than 600 people, saying it has also terrorised the local population with physical assaults and threats, and the seizure and destruction of property.

However, the army shares the blame for "horrific abuses, including killings, torture and rape of civilians", Human Rights Watch (HRW) and two Kenyan human rights organisations, Mwatikho and Western Kenya-Human Rights Watch, said in a joint statement issued on 4 April.

The military, they said, had detained thousands, tortured hundreds and unlawfully killed dozens of people.

"The people of Mt Elgon are being doubly victimised, first by the rebel militia and now by the army," said Georgette Gagnon, HRW Africa director. "The Sabaot Land Defence Force has committed hideous crimes and people welcomed the army at first. But now Kenyan soldiers are abusing those they are supposed to protect."

Calling on the SLDF and the Kenyan government to end abuses, the human rights groups said their actions were a serious violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.