Kenyan Opposition Leader Leaves Country

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya's opposition leader unexpectedly left the country Friday, one day after government negotiators and their rivals edged toward a power-sharing deal to end a deadly postelection crisis.

Raila Odinga was still available for consultations while in Nigeria and was expected back Saturday, said opposition official Musalia Mudavadi. A Nairobi airport employee, who said he had seen the flight's manifest, confirmed the trip. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

George Nyamweya, a spokesman for the president's party, called Odinga's departure unexpected, but not necessarily a sign that negotiations had taken a sour turn. "He's free to go and come as he pleases," Nyamweya said.

Odinga missed a scheduled meeting Friday with Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, the AU executive body. Negotiators from his party attended instead, according to an AU official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Dec. 27 election returned President Mwai Kibaki to power for a second five-year term after Odinga's lead in early vote counting evaporated overnight. The ensuing violence has stirred up ethnic grievances over land and poverty that have bedeviled Kenya since independence in 1963. More than 1,000 people have been killed.

On Thursday, the two sides appeared to be heading toward a deal as the government tentatively agreed to create a prime minister's post to be filled by the opposition. Government negotiator Mutula Kilonzo had said an agreement was expected Friday after weeks of international pressure on both sides to share power.

"I am beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel," former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who has been mediating in the political negotiations, said in a statement Thursday.

Talks were to continue Friday, and negotiators from both sides were seen arriving at the luxury hotel where they have been trying to strike a deal. It wasn't clear whether Odinga's trip would disrupt the talks.

In Nigeria, Information Minister John Odey said he was unaware of Odinga's visit, indicating that the trip's purpose wasn't likely to include an official visit. The presidential spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.

Nigeria, an African military and diplomatic powerhouse, isn't known to be involved in mediation efforts in Kenya.

A think tank said Thursday that armed groups on opposing sides of the political and ethnic strife in Kenya are mobilizing for new attacks and serious violence could erupt again if peace talks fail.

"Calm has partly returned but the situation remains highly volatile," the Brussels, Belgium-based International Crisis Group said in a report. "Armed groups are still mobilizing on both sides."

Talks between Kibaki and Odinga have focused on how to create a broader-based government to end the crisis. In particular, Odinga and his backers have demanded that the president share power.

The country remains caught between a desire to move on from waves of ethnic attacks and a fear that any compromise could spark new fighting.

Much of the bloodshed has pitted other ethnic groups against Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, long resented for dominating politics and the economy.

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Tom Odula contributed to this report.

Bookmark the permalink.