Gang war in Kenya leaves 11 police dead

Nairobi, Kenya - Eleven Kenyan police officers were killed last month during a war with the Mungiki criminal gang that has sparked fears of violence during an election planned for later this year, police said.

The government has sworn to eliminate Mungiki and the death toll has mounted during a crackdown and reprisals from Mungiki, which has spread fear in east Africa's biggest economy with scores of attacks and beheadings in Nairobi and central Kenya.

"The month of June has been very challenging. We regret the loss of 11 officers in the line of duty," Kenya Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe told Reuters.

Kiraithe said he could not confirm the number of people killed by the police during the operation, but local media reported that 112 people have been killed in the past month.

He said 3,379 suspected Mungiki have been arrested across the country and charged in court.

In the latest attack, seven suspected Mungiki were shot dead in central Kenya after they were found taking an illegal oath on Sunday. Police say most of those killed had resisted arrest and shot at officers.

Mungiki, which means "multitude" in the local Kikuyu language, claims to champion the rights of the poor and urges a return to traditional Kikuyu values.

Drawn mostly from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe, it has adopted the trappings of the Mau Mau insurgents who fought the British colonial government for independence.

But police say it has metamorphosed into the biggest criminal mafia in the country.

The gang gets its money from extortion in the country's lucrative minibus transport industry and other protection rackets.

It appears to be providing muscle-for-hire to politicians slugging it out in the election expected in December this year.

Kiraithe warned that not all the criminals killed in the crackdown were Mungiki members, but rather others taking advantage of the spotlight on Mungiki to carry out crimes.

Human rights groups accuse the government of excessive force during the crackdown, but police maintain they exercise restraint.