NAIROBI, KENYA — Tit-for-tat ethnic clashes have killed more than two dozen people during the last two days, and angry youths Saturday continued to terrorize parts of central Kenya, defying calls from political leaders to maintain the peace.
The country's latest postelection trouble spot is Nakuru, about 90 miles northwest of Nairobi, where gangs from rival tribes have burned hundreds of homes, stoned motorists and hacked dozens of people with machetes. The local morgue was overrun with burned, mutilated bodies. Local news media put the death toll as high as 41.
"It's a tribal war," said David Kuria, 42, a Nakuru soda vendor and father of four. "We've had tribal clashes before, but I've never seen anything like this. Shops are closed. Children are scared. People won't go outside."
The government dispatched army units to quell the violence and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The clashes in Nakuru, which previously had escaped much of the violence, were some of the deadliest in this East African nation since the turmoil that followed a disputed Dec. 27 presidential poll.
International election observers said the vote was plagued by irregularities and suspected rigging. Despite the controversy, incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner by the country's election commission, sparking nationwide riots that have killed more than 600 people and displaced 250,000.
The latest violence started Thursday night, just hours after Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga met for their first mediation talks. The presidential rivals shook hands and called upon their supporters to maintain peace as negotiations proceeded.
The outbreak raised questions about just how much control each man has over his supporters and offered the latest evidence that Kenya's crisis may be spinning beyond postelection frustration and reigniting decades-old tribal competition over land, jobs and resources.
"It may have been triggered by the postelection process, but it has evolved into something else," former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Saturday after completing what he described as a "heart-wrenching" tour of violence-affected areas and displacement camps. Annan arrived in Kenya last week to lead peace talks.
Nakuru's tribal clashes involve two major Kenyan tribes that have long competed for control of the Rift Valley, a lush agricultural region in the middle of the country.
In a surprise attack, members of the Kalenjin tribe, who supported Odinga, swarmed into neighborhoods populated by Kibaki's clan, the Kikuyus, a rich, land-owning tribe that has dominated Kenyan politics since the country gained independence.
In addition to being angry over the election, experts say Kalenjins have long coveted the land owned by Kikuyus in the region. Under the 24-year reign of former President Daniel Arap Moi, who was a Kalenjin, his tribesman enjoyed greater prosperity, but they have seen their position fall since Kibaki became president in 2002. Similar clashes between the two tribes occurred in 1992 and 1997.
By Saturday, Kikuyu militias had organized to defend their homes and retaliate, setting up illegal roadblocks on highways around the city. Two Kalenjin men were hacked to death at the Nakuru bus station, witnesses said.
"They're trying to get even," said Nakuru Red Cross coordinator Abdi Shakur. "They are very angry."
Kenyan police spokesman Eric Kiraithe tried to assure the public Saturday that security would be restored, blaming the violence on gangs and "advantage-takers."
Police in Nakuru have been criticized for allowing the violence to get out of control before intervening.
"What is causing the chaos is gangs of youths, forming on ethnic lines," Kiraithe said in an interview on local television. "But looting does not solve the political problems."