Gunfire in Nairobi slum kills 11

Nairobi, Kenya - A shantytown believed to be a stronghold for gangsters who behead their victims erupted in deadly gunbattles Thursday, killing at least 11 people as paramilitary police rounded up hundreds of residents, beating them with truncheons and demolishing homes.

The violence, on the third day of a crackdown on the shadowy Mungiki sect, was reminiscent of the politically volatile 1990s, when police would storm the slums in search of opposition supporters. Mungiki was inspired by the 1950s Mau Mau uprising against British rule but has become a street gang linked to murder, political violence and extortion.

Since Monday, police have killed more than 30 people suspected of being part of Mungiki and arrested 300 in the Mathare slum. Police also said they recovered three guns and human flesh believed to be used for Mungiki oath-taking.

Police said 11 people were killed Thursday in Mathare, home to an estimated 500,000 people in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. An eerie quiet, interrupted by the pop of gunfire, descended over the maze of dusty streets and wooden shacks as residents sprawled on the ground or hid in their homes.

More than 500 police and paramilitary officers have swarmed Mathare this week in search of Mungiki followers, who have been accused in the deaths of at least 20 people in the past three months, including 12 found mutilated or beheaded since May. The group is accused of killing two police officers Monday.

"I don't know anything about Mungiki," said Mathare resident Kennedy Kahera, 37, who was arrested Thursday but released. "The police are doing a good job by enforcing the law, but are using an excessive force."

Police were forcing people to carry corpses to police trucks and to wade into the Nairobi River and search for illegal weapons believed to have been dumped there. Children in blue school uniforms walked past hundreds of men kneeling on the ground, guarded by officers in camouflage who fired warning shots into the air. A woman with blood streaming down her face carried a child through the streets.

"The police are using the necessary force authorized by the law," police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said. "Police are not using excessive force."

Wanasolo William, 30, who was carrying his infant son in his arms, begged police not to tear down his single-room home, made of sticks and iron sheeting.

"Please don't destroy my house, please give me two days to leave the country," William, originally from Uganda, said as police knocked down the home.

Julius Ndegwa, a senior police officer who was supervising the operation, denied police were destroying homes for no reason. "We are searching for guns in every corner of these structures," he said.

The Standard, Kenya's oldest newspaper, ran a front-page editorial Thursday saying police must not "crash their way into homes and houses at night and shoot and kill innocent people under the blanket guise of fighting Mungiki."

Mungiki claims to have thousands of adherents, all drawn from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe. Members of the group, whose name means "multitude" in the Kikuyu language, traditionally wear dreadlocks, inspired by the Mau Mau who wore them as a symbol of anti-colonialism and their determination not to conform to Western norms. In recent years, however, many Mungiki have shaved their heads, believing dreadlocks are too conspicuous.

Sect members pray facing Mount Kenya, which the Kikuyu believe is the home of their supreme deity. The group also encourages female genital mutilation and using tobacco snuff.

Mungiki was outlawed in 2002 after at least 20 people were killed in fighting between it and another gang called the Taliban, whose members come from the Luo tribe of western Kenya.

The recent bloodshed has raised fears Mungiki members are out to disrupt elections in December, when President Mwai Kibaki will seek a second term.

Leaflets allegedly circulated by the group call on Kenyan youth to join an uprising against the government. The leaflet includes a threat that "if one youth is killed, we shall kill 10 police."