NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Police in Kenya opened fire amid opposition-organized protests on Wednesday against the rising cost of living, and health workers and witnesses said at least two people were shot dead and 26 others wounded.
The opposition had called for three days of nationwide protests aimed at forcing the president to repeal a finance law imposing new taxes. President William Ruto had vowed that no protests would take place, saying he would take opposition leader Raila Odinga “head-on.”
In the western city of Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold, the chief executive Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Hospital confirmed the deaths. “We have two bodies recorded at the mortuary with gunshot wounds, and 14 other people are admitted with gunshot wounds,” hospital CEO George Rae said.
The Associated Press witnessed one man shot in the shoulder and two others shot in the leg in the Mathare area of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Four protesters were injured in Mathare, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In Nairobi’s Kangemi area, health records worker Alvin Sikuku told the AP that two young men were brought into the Eagle Nursing Home clinic. “Police are using live bullets,” he said.
One man was shot in the back and severely wounded, and the other was shot in the leg. “We don’t yet know if they were protesting or just walking by,” Sikuku said.
In the city of Nakuru, Nakuru Referral Hospital Medical Superintendent James Waweru confirmed that four people came in with gunshot wounds, two of them shot in the abdomen, one in the chest and another one in the leg. A fifth person had been cut and wounded.
The Interior Ministry said more than 300 people were arrested during the protests and will be charged with crimes that include looting, destroying property and assaulting police. Authorities did not comment on the dead and wounded or respond to witness allegations that police officers had at times fired into homes.
The opposition condemned the arrests of seven elected leaders and two close associates of Odinga, describing them in a statement as a “desperate attempt” by the Ruto administration to paralyze the opposition.
The opposition said protests would continue Thursday.
The Media Council of Kenya alleged cases of police masquerading as journalists “with intent to arrest protesters.” In a statement, the council called such behavior “grave unprofessional conduct.”
Businesses and schools in Nairobi were closed as police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. Demonstrations were reported in several other parts of the country, including the western counties of Migori and Kisii, where the opposition enjoys huge support.
Police had said the protests were illegal as no permit for them was issued, but the right to peaceful protests is enshrined in the Kenyan constitution.
During similar protests last week, at least 10 people were killed, according to watchdogs. A police officer confirmed at least six deaths to the AP. Many others were injured, including 53 children who went into shock after tear gas was thrown inside their school compound.
Religious leaders have called for dialogue between the government and the opposition to end the protests. Catholic bishops on Wednesday issued a statement saying “no further blood should be shed” and urged the president to repeal the finance law that has agitated many Kenyans.
The law has raised the price of fuel to its highest level as the government implements a doubling of value added tax on petroleum products to 16%. The prices have taken effect despite a court order suspending the implementation of the controversial new taxes.
A Nairobi resident, Wycliffe Onyango, said his entire earnings are spent on food. “Right now there is no work going on. We are suffering. I plead with the government to deal with the cost of living,” he said.
The International Monetary Fund this week called the law’s approval a “crucial” step toward reducing Kenya’s debt vulnerabilities.
Western envoys from 13 countries on Tuesday issued a joint statement calling for dialogue and expressed concern over the loss of lives and destruction of property.
The Kenya Medical Association said its members had attended to “hundreds of injured Kenyans and witnessed tens of fatalities” as a result of protests in recent months, and access to health facilities was limited for patients and workers, leading to increased mortality.
Human Rights Watch urged political leaders to stop labelling protesters as “terrorists” and respect the right to peaceful protests. The group also called out the police for using force and live bullets to confront protesters.
Associated Press writer Cara Anna and photographer Brian Inganga contributed to this report.