Embassies warn against violence in Kenya election

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NAIROBI, Oct 1 (Reuters) Two dozen foreign embassies in Kenya called today for ''zero tolerance'' on campaign violence as elections loom in the east African nation where national votes seldom pass without bloodshed.

With campaigns just beginning to roll ahead of an expected December presidential poll, one rally has already been ambushed by men armed with bows-and-arrows.

In a joint statement at a Nairobi news conference, the 25 nations -- including most of Kenya's major aid donors -- urged authorities to ensure a clean, fair and peaceful vote.

''We encourage (political players) to refrain from any action involving bribery, corruption, violence, intimidation and coercion of voters,'' the statement said, adding that all signatories would stay neutral on the election's outcome.

Kenya's most recent presidential elections, and a 2005 referendum, all saw riots and fighting during the campaigns.

And in what many saw as an ominous sign for this year's poll, 10 days ago three opposition politicians were injured by men hurling rocks and firing arrows when they showed up uninvited at a fundraiser for President Mwai Kibaki.

''We want zero tolerance on political violence,'' Anna Brandt, the Swedish ambassador to Kenya and Rwanda, said on behalf of her fellow heads of mission at the Nairobi news conference.

''There is more at stake this time than in 2002 or during the referendum, because opinion polls keep changing. It's going to be very close this time.'' Opinion polls in recent days have shown main opposition candidate Raila Odinga -- a firebrand former political prisoner -- overtaking Kibaki in voter preferences for the first time.

Odinga commands passionate support from his Luo tribe in west Kenya, while Kibaki has the backing of the nation's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Tribal rivalry has traditionally defined Kenyan politics and stirred violence.

Today's statement was signed by 25 diplomatic missions, including the United States and the European Union.

They singled out the plight of women in Kenyan politics for special mention. ''Women candidates are more at risk,'' Brandt said. ''Women are so under-represented in Kenyan political life compared to neighbouring countries.'' US envoy Michael Ranneberger said he was confident Kenyans would rise above the tribalism that has dogged them in the past.

''I think voters will surprise people by voting on issues, not along tribal lines,'' he said.

The diplomats' comments came a day after Kibaki, 75, formally launched his re-election in front of 50,000 people at the Nyayo sports stadium in Nairobi.

Odinga is to hold a similar rally in Nairobi at the weekend, already postponed once due to the threat of violence.

REUTERS SKB AS1801

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