updated 2/9/2008 1:53:36 AM ET 2008-02-09T06:53:36

Children clustered around the charred body, its features mercifully melted into an unrecognizable black mask. In a few places where the fire hadn't reached, human features — a calloused foot, a hand with a metal bracelet — still were visible.

The man, accused by people in this western Kenyan town of being a thief, was the fourth person to be burned alive within two days, a victim of mounting frustration that police have been unable to stop criminals from taking advantage of the country's postelection chaos.

"People are taking advantages of the skirmishes and stealing from other people," said Dorothy Atieno as she stared at the corpse. "This is an example to them."

Kenyans complain that since an election dispute sparked violence, police have focused on suppressing opposition demonstrations rather than fighting crime. The result, they say, is that some have been spurred to vigilantism amid an enormous surge in violent attacks in a country where the capital, Nairobi, already is nicknamed Nairobbery.

"We call the police and they don't come. When we kill them, that's when they come," complained Dorothy Sijenyi as she watched officers load another corpse into the back of a van later that day. A crowd of several hundred youths, some armed with machetes and stones, taunted the four officers as they drove away: "They (the criminals) say, 'We are stealing, but there is no one to take us to jail.'"

‘Very unusual’ attacks in Kisumu
Two more suspected thieves were killed and burned in Kisumu on Sunday night. Two were also attacked on Wednesday, but survived, a health official said. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The number of vigilante attacks "is very unusual in Kisumu and this is the first time we are seeing this," he said, adding that the usual rate would be about one attack a month on an alleged thief.

National police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said there were more break-ins recorded this January than for all of 2007. There was a similar jump in arson attacks and rape had rocketed to its highest level for six years, he added.

He was aware of two men who had been lynched in the town of Limuru on Wednesday after issuing orders to women on how to dress, he said. One died and one was saved by police intervention. Another suspected thief had been killed in the town of Naivasha on Tuesday, he added.

Kiraithe was unaware of any incidents in Kisumu, but said police had many unexplained murders under investigation. Around 1,000 Kenyans have died in the postelection violence, according to the Kenyan Red Cross.

Kiraithe denied that police had been slow in responding to reports, saying that they had been ordered to patrol more frequently and respond quickly to complaints.

Public lynchings are not uncommon in the developing world, where frustration over police corruption and ossified courts frequently boils over into violence. The South American nation of Bolivia is even considering legalizing them as a form of "indigenous justice."

Multiple factors exacerbate problem
But Kenyans say the situation has been exacerbated by an overstretched, underequipped police force, politicians who have incited youths to take to the streets and the catastrophic effect of the postelection violence on the economy.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga originally called for peaceful street protests against President Mwai Kibaki's razor-thin win in an election heavily criticized by domestic and international observers. When police used tear gas and bullets to disperse protesters, the demonstrators turned on members of the Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, long resented for its dominance of politics and business.

In Kisumu, an opposition stronghold, no Kikuyu-owned shop or business remains open — all have been smashed, looted and burned. They have been stripped even of their corrugated iron roofs.

Now that the town has been emptied of Kikuyus, gangs of thugs are turning on others, say residents.

"Initially it was about Kikuyus. Now looking for Kikuyus is just an excuse to loot your property," said Haroun Wandalo, who has had young men armed with machetes demand to search his house three times in past weeks. Now the mild-mannered, bespectacled cafe owner, who comes from an ethnic group that voted for the opposition, guards his wife and house with a machete. His area has set up a neighborhood watch system.

In the nearby town of Eldoret, Joel Kirorei was supervising the reconstruction of his hotel after it was burned to the ground during the postelection violence. He too comes from an ethnic group that supported Odinga, so theoretically should not be threatened by the gangs chanting slogans during demonstrations. But he is worried.

"Most of these youths are unemployed," he said. "They have nothing to do and now they are used to free things."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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