updated 3/13/2008 6:08:50 PM ET 2008-03-13T22:08:50

The military sealed off a region of western Kenya where land disputes have flared into violence, and witnesses said helicopter gunships were strafing the area Thursday to try to drive gunmen from forests and caves.

"Always in this country, people are fighting over land," said Lucy Okello, head nurse at Kitale District Hospital, where four girls were being treated for severe burns after their village was attacked, allegedly by the Sabaot Land Defense Force, a militia fighting for the redistribution of land.

The oldest girl, 15-year-old Joanne Temuko, wailed and held her head in her hands as nurses applied balm to her scorched back.

Thirteen other civilians were hacked, shot or burned to death in the attack last week. There was no claim of responsibility. A militia member said at the time that his group was simply trying to "correct historical injustices."

The military operation at Mount Elgon comes despite a power-sharing agreement designed to end a wave of violence that erupted after a disputed election last December. The violence awakened decades-old tensions over land and inequality.

Police manning checkpoints Thursday along dusty roads lined with banana trees and onion farms leading to Mount Elgon ordered journalists and aid workers to turn back.

Region home to extinct volcano, tourist sites
There was no word on casualties in the military operation, which began Monday around Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano near the border with Uganda, where spectacular caves, waterfalls and hot springs draw hikers and other adventure tourists.

"This is a serious government operation," said an officer at a checkpoint in Namangofulo, the last village before the foothills of Mount Elgon, about 300 miles northwest of Nairobi. "You only go through if you have a uniform."

In Nairobi, government spokesman Alfred Mutua said journalists were being kept out of the area for their own safety.

Gunmen "have been killing people indiscriminately. We don't want them to start killing journalists and for (journalists) to be caught in the line of fire. So it is basically keeping away journalists for their own security," he said.

The Dec. 27 vote tapped into a well of resentment that resurfaces regularly at election time in Kenya, but this year's bloodshed has been the most brutal and sustained by far.

Dispute part of violence spurred by election
The election, which international and local observers say was rigged, unleashed weeks of bloodshed that has killed more than 1,000 people and exposed simmering resentments over land and President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group, long dominant in politics and the economy.

Mutua said the aim of the military operation at Mount Elgon was to flush out and arrest suspects in killings and other crimes. He said some suspects had tried to flee across the border into Uganda.

Abdul Mwasera, the provincial commissioner in the region, said 187 people had been arrested.

"The operation will continue until these criminals surrender or are wiped out to allow peace to prevail," Mwasera said.

Several villagers outside the area sealed off by the military said they have seen helicopter gunships firing for several days now, most recently before dawn Thursday.

"I was seeing fire," said Jeff Ngeti, 18. "Men were running."

Jacqueline Kamello, 27, who was working on an onion farm, said there were at least three helicopters flying in the area Thursday morning.

"I am happy about this military operation," she said. "These land militias have been bothering us, carting away our animals, attacking our neighbors."

The region sees frequent clashes over land, with some 800 people killed since 2006, said Ken Wafula, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in the Rift Valley.

Tensions began decades ago
Much of the tension can be traced back decades. Western Kenya was flooded by Kikuyu settlers when white farmlands were returned to Kenyans after independence in 1963.

The Kikuyu quickly prospered, growing into the most powerful of Kenya's 42 ethnic groups, controlling land and running businesses and politics.

Kibaki and his rival, Raila Odinga, have now agreed to share power. Late Thursday, Kibaki named a six-member panel to investigate the election. Such a probe had been agreed to under the same deal that led to the power-sharing accord.

Despite the political accords, western Kenya has not seen an end to violence, much of it unleashed by land disputes.

The violence has been worsened by guns smuggled into Kenya through its porous borders.

Okello, the head nurse at Kitale District Hospital, said more patients are coming in with gunshot wounds, as well as injuries from weapons such as bows and arrows.

"We started receiving so many more people this year, with these wounds," she said. "I have cried for these victims so much, I can cry no more."

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

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