NAIROBI, Kenya — The two men at the center of Kenya's political crisis met face to face Thursday for the first time since a disputed election, but hopes for an end to four weeks of chaos and ethnic violence quickly dissolved into partisan backbiting.
Moments after the long-awaited meeting between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki — whose re-election many observers think was rigged — Kibaki delivered a short, defiant speech in which he called himself the "duly elected president of Kenya" and referred repeatedly to "my government," while Odinga stood by uncomfortably.
Odinga's party called a news conference to denounce what it called Kibaki's "demeaning and unacceptable behavior." Party officials charged that Kibaki was trying to undermine the talks and demanded that both sides agree on terms before Odinga would meet with him again.
Just like that, two days of work by the latest mediator to come to Kenya — former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — withered in the Nairobi heat. Annan, a Ghanaian, is leading a panel of African elder statesmen to try to resolve a political standoff that's led to the deaths of nearly 700 people, mostly from ethnically�motivated killings and police crackdowns on protesters.
Odinga has demanded a new election and, in the interim, an equal partnership in an interim government. Kibaki has scoffed at that — having already taken the oath of office and filled his most influential Cabinet posts — but said he was willing to give up lesser positions.
Annan made an advance by getting the rivals to meet, one day after persuading Odinga to call off protests that had been scheduled for Thursday. Outside the presidential office before the meeting, Kibaki and Odinga shook hands warmly. When they emerged after more than an hour, Annan said they were committed to reaching a lasting solution, a process that could take "weeks and months."
"I think we have begun to take some fair steps toward a peaceful solution," Annan said.
Then, before a crowd of several hundred who'd gathered at the end of the workday in downtown Nairobi, Odinga took the microphone and elicited cheers when he pledged to "spare no effort to resolve this crisis."
Finally Kibaki went to the microphone, but before he could begin his remarks, an aide dragged over a lectern bearing Kenya's national seal, a symbol of the presidency.
"I will personally lead our country in promoting unity, tolerance, peace and harmony," Kibaki said, the seal barely glinting in the fading sunlight.
An aide to Odinga said later that Annan had asked both men to exchange copies of their remarks beforehand as a gesture of good faith, but that Kibaki had delivered a different version
Also Thursday, a leading human rights group said it had evidence that opposition officials had helped plan attacks against rival ethnic groups after the election.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said tribal leaders and local agents of Odinga's party, the Orange Democratic Movement, had urged young men to loot and burn homes that belonged to members of Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyu, in and around Eldoret, a flash-point town in Kenya's western Rift Valley.
"In many communities, local leaders and ODM mobilizers arranged frequent meetings following the election to organize, direct and facilitate the violence unleashed by gangs of local youth," the group said in a statement, citing interviews with members of several pro-opposition communities.
In one case, researchers said, a local opposition candidate reportedly provided a truck to transport young men to a nearby community to torch the homes of Kikuyu families. Several residents reported that local elders and opposition party officials had called on them to contribute money to help buy automatic weapons.
Opposition leaders have denied orchestrating violence, which they describe as spontaneous.
Since the election, ethnic clashes have killed more than 400 people in the Rift Valley, Human Rights Watch said. The group called on Kenyan authorities to deploy more police officers to the region to protect thousands of Kikuyus who are living in temporary encampments, which may be in danger of further attacks.
(Special correspondent Munene Kilongi contributed to this report.)