Gruesome attacks in Kenyan villages heighten fears

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- More than 20 people were killed in two attacks Saturday night on Kenya's coast, with residents saying that many of the victims had their hands bound and their throats slit, in the latest in a string of gruesome assaults with ethnic undercurrents.

The violence has deeply unnerved this country at a time of increasing insecurity and rising political tensions. Nonetheless, Kenya's leading opposition politician, Raila Odinga, vowed Sunday to press ahead with a large demonstration today in downtown Nairobi, the capital.

The Kenyan government fears that opposition supporters might try to occupy a public park, setting up what could be a bloody showdown with the police. Government officials said that such a sit-in would be illegal and that they would not allow the center of Nairobi to be turned into a Kenyan version of Tahrir Square, the plaza in Egypt's capital, Cairo, that became the foremost symbol of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Many Kenyans are worried about today's rally, given the heightened insecurity and strained mood. Some families have already begun to flee ethnically mixed areas in Nairobi and surrounding towns after leaflets mysteriously surfaced warning members of certain ethnic groups to leave.

In Kenya, it is hard to draw a line between politics and ethnicity. Most people back politicians from their own ethnic group, and political tensions often stir up ethnic ones. Many analysts say that Kenya has not been this ethnically polarized since a disastrous election in 2007 set off riots and clashes that killed more than 1,000 people.

"Government, opposition must step back from the brink," read the lead editorial in the Sunday Nation, one of Kenya's biggest newspapers.

Over the past few weeks, Kenya's opposition leaders have held numerous boisterous but peaceful rallies across the country but the government is taking no chances about today's event, timed to commemorate the anniversary of Kenya's multiparty democracy movement that began in 1990. Thousands of police officers will be deployed with explicit orders to keep roads open and trade flowing.

The spate of killings along the coast that the government has called politically motivated seems to have overwhelmed Kenya's security forces.

According to the police inspector general, two villages, Hindi and Gamba, were attacked about the same time Saturday night, with dozens of armed intruders killing civilians, blasting their way into a jail and burning down houses and a church. Residents said that, as with other recent attacks, most of the victims were Kikuyus -- the same ethnic group as Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta -- and that many had been slaughtered with knives, their hands tied behind their backs.

Many Kenyans and security experts alike are confused about who is behind the attacks, which began last month with a full-fledged raid on what had been a sleepy coastal town.

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