NAIROBI, JULY 9 -- The Kenyan government tonight strongly protested a decision by officials of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to grant refuge to an outspoken Kenyan human-rights lawyer, charging "gross interference" by the United States in Kenya's internal affairs.

The tough statement came as violence flared for the third straight day in this East African country, long seen by the West as one of the region's few stable nations. Sporadic clashes between police and rioting youths resulted in the deaths of at least three civilians.

The rioters, some demanding greater democracy in this tightly controlled, one-party state, burned buses and cars and stoned buildings in Nairobi's suburban slums. Security forces responded with bursts of tear gas and gunshots fired into the air.

Downtown shops closed early, and by 3 p.m. the city center was virtually deserted, save for squads of security forces patrolling the streets.

There were also reports of violent disturbances in the west central cities of Nakuru and Naivasha today, with unconfirmed reports of at least two more deaths.

The clashes were triggered by a crackdown last week by the government of President Daniel arap Moi on prominent advocates of political change, which resulted in the arrest of at least 11 dissidents. However, the disturbances -- which have usually entailed the looting of shops and stoning of vehicles by youths -- have taken place generally in some of the most impoverished sections of the capital and seem to reflect economic as much as political discontent.

The outbreak of some of today's most violent disturbances in the Nairobi slums of Kangemi and Kangwari "leads me to believe that the discontent may be economically based," said U.S. Ambassador Smith Hempstone, who has been an outspoken supporter of greater political freedom in Kenya.

Hempstone's decision Saturday to grant refuge to human-rights lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria prompted the Kenyan government to declare in its official statement tonight that the U.S. Embassy "has openly given solace and support to elements in the country bent on destabilizing the constitutionally elected government of Kenya. . . . It has even gone to the extent of harboring individuals sought by the law for their criminal and subversive activities aimed at undermining state security.

"The government of Kenya wishes to protest in the strongest terms . . . this unwarranted interference in Kenya's internal affairs."

Hempstone dismissed the complaint and defended the granting of refuge to Kuria, a prominent advocate of civil rights here, who has charged that he was tortured while held on political grounds in 1987. Kuria, who has been staying at the U.S. Embassy since Saturday, has asked to leave the country.

"He sincerely fears for his safety and life," said Hempstone. "I think he is generally recognized and would describe himself as a dissident."

{In Washington, Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, lodged a protest with Kenyan Ambassador Denis Afande over the Moi government's criticism of Hempstone, the Associated Press reported.

{Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Africa subcommittee, said he would press Congress to freeze or cut U.S. aid to Kenya until it improves its human-rights record.}

Moi, who during his 12-year rule has resisted political pluralism on the grounds that it will unleash tribal infighting, has not commented on the flare-up. He was scheduled to return to Nairobi late tonight from a meeting of African heads of state in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.