Kenyan Troops Strike at Militia Involved in Land Clashes

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

NAIROBI, March 10 -- The Kenyan army launched a military operation against a militia in the volatile Rift Valley region Monday, an unusual intervention in a long-standing land dispute that has been exacerbated by Kenya's recent post-election crisis.

Hundreds of Kenyan soldiers moved to the Mount Elgon area of the valley Sunday, and on Monday used five attack helicopters to strike a forested mountain area where members of the Sabaot Land Defense Force militia were thought to be hiding, according to local officials and the Reuters news agency, which had a reporter in the area.

Over the past year and a half, at least 500 people have been killed in land clashes involving the group. About 66,000 people have been displaced in the same period, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society. Last week, 13 people were reported burned or hacked to death.

Monday was the first time the Kenyan military had intervened in the dispute, which some people here viewed as an attempt by the government to exert control following weeks of post-election violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 others displaced.

"It's extremely unusual," said Buke Wafula, a political activist from the region who is loyal to opposition leader and prime minister-designate Raila Odinga. "I think it's a declaration on the part of the government that it will do everything in its power to deal with this issue. But this kind of issue does not necessitate the intervention of the army. It needs political work."

Kenya's Rift Valley -- a mostly lush patchwork of rolling tea farms, fields of sugar cane and vegetables -- is full of complex land disputes that are often exploited by local politicians, who cast the hundreds of thousands of people settled there by the government over the years as "outsiders" and "invaders."

The sense of injustice over land allocation has fueled brutal clashes in the valley almost since Kenyan independence in 1963, but successive governments have largely steered clear of the dicey issue of land reform. Some Kenyans say that is in part because members of Kenya's elite circle of politicians and wealthy families are themselves guilty of illegally grabbing millions of fertile acres across the country.

After reaching a power-sharing deal last month, President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga promised to address the issue.

Land clashes in the valley have often targeted people from Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group -- many of whom lost land elsewhere during the colonial period and were resettled by Kenya's first president, a Kikuyu. But the Mount Elgon clashes have mostly pitted sub-clans of another ethnic group, the Kalenjin, against each other.

The militia is made up of members of the Sabaot sub-clan.

Over the years, the militia has turned into a kind of rural mafia, extorting money from villagers, raiding farms, burning houses and striking deals with local politicians, who tend to lose elections if they betray the Sabaots' cause.

Because the Sabaot militiamen are so spread out in the hills, Wafula predicted that the military would have a difficult time avoiding civilian casualties.

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