At least 14 people have been burned to death in ethnic violence in the Kenyan town of Naivasha, overshadowing Kofi Annan's push to resolve the political crisis.
Nine people were killed earlier in clashes between gangs of youths in the slums of the lakeside town, bringing the death toll in the western Rift Valley since Thursday to 130.
“We have found 14 bodies burnt in houses,” a police commander told news agency AFP. “It appears the attackers locked them in and set them ablaze.”
Former UN chief Annan, on his sixth day in Kenya on Sunday, met in Nairobi with opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims he was robbed of victory in last month's election which returned President Mwai Kibaki to power.
“I condemn this murderous and evil act in the strongest terms possible,” Mr Odinga said later of the attacks in Naivasha, in the country's west.
“What is now emerging is that criminal gangs, on a killing spree, are working under police protection,” he charged.
Latent ethnic and land disputes have fuelled revenge killings in western Kenya between Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and members of the Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups who supported Odinga.
Human Rights Watch last week accused Kenya's opposition of orchestrating ethnic violence in the region, a charge they immediately denied.
Close to 900 people have now been killed, according to an AFP tally of police and hospital figures, since the disputed December 27 election touched off a wave of deadly rioting and ethnic killings. Some 260,000 people across the country have been forced to flee their homes.
Most of the new Naivasha fatalities were workers from local flower farms, the police commander said.
“Police experienced difficulties getting into the houses,” he said. “They forced their way in and found bodies of men, women and children burnt beyond recognition.”
Gangs armed with machetes and bows and arrows have led clashes throughout the western Rift Valley.
Police confirmed that an unspecified number of people had died in ethnic clashes between scores of youths in Naivasha's Kabati slums earlier Sunday.
An AFP correspondent there counted five charred bodies in houses, three others that had been hacked to death, and said one policeman had been accidentally shot dead by a colleague.
Extra police deployed
Further north in Nakuru, many residents accused police of standing by as machete-wielding youths prepared for more battles.
“The police came here and ordered us to surrender our arms but are not doing anything to protect us. At the moment we are still insecure,” said 22-year-old Cosmas Makori, whose house was burnt down in a Nakuru slum on Friday.
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua told AFP they had deployed extra police to restore order in the western towns.
“The government would like to reiterate that everybody behind every crime will be held accountable for his own or her own actions,” he added.
The army, in its first deployment since the election violence, played a backseat role in quelling the clashes in Nakuru, mainly clearing roadblocks, officials said.
On Sunday, trucks piled with luggage were seen transporting thousands of people who had fled their homes in Nakuru, and a new displacement camp was set up in the town's biggest sports stadium.
'Human rights abuses'
Mr Annan said on Saturday that unrest set off by Mr Kibaki's disputed re-election had led to “gross and systematic” human rights abuses, after visiting parts of the Rift Valley with former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa and Graca Machel, wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
As Mr Annan continued talks with political officials, Musalia Mudavadi, from Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, said progress had been made towards preparing talks with President Kibaki.
“Our side and the other side will appoint three negotiators and an additional person as a liaison person,” Mr Mudavadi told journalists.
Mr Annan on Thursday orchestrated a symbolic first meeting between Mr Kibaki and
Mr Odinga, who shook hands, called for peace and hinted at a willingness to talk.
But the gesture, hailed internationally, was later undermined by further squabbling, with both sides maintaining their hardline positions.
African Union chairman Alpha Oumar Konare expressed concern on Sunday about the ongoing violence and called for a political solution to the crisis.
“(The answer) cannot just be a power sharing one. If the democratic process is only about sharing the cake, we will never have peace because there will always be those who are discontented,” he told AU foreign ministers in Addis Ababa.
Rather, it was necessary to “reaffirm the principles of good governance and not of indifference, to fight against violence. We cannot close our eyes and ears.”
The crisis has damaged the economy and shattered the east African nation's image as a beacon of stability in the region.