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Oct 22, 11:55 AM EDT

Kenya's leader urges peace ahead of vote as tensions rise


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AP Photo/Sayyid Abdul Azim

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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kenyans to remain peaceful ahead of Thursday's fresh presidential election, while a witness said police shot and wounded at least one person amid a rise in ethnic tensions in the capital, Nairobi.

A resident of the low-income Lucky Summer neighborhood said tensions grew after members of Kenyatta's ethnic Kikuyu community performed a ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep. Some residents interpreted it as a war ceremony. Others said it was a ceremony to recruit members of the Mungiki, a proscribed quasi-religious gang known for beheadings that has been used in past elections to attack supporters of the opposition, Sheila Kariuki said.

Supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga went to the site of the ceremony and police shot at them when an argument started, Kariuki said. Running battles between stone-throwing residents ensued until local legislator Tom Kajwang arrived and calmed the Odinga supporters, Kariuki said.

Kajwang condemned the police for allowing the meeting to occur.

"This is intimidation that we won't allow. This is aimed at provoking us and we will protect ourselves," he said.

Area police chief Alice Kimeli confirmed that police had shot one person and said the group performing the ceremony had asked for police protection.

Kenyatta's re-election in August was nullified by the Supreme Court, citing irregularities, and a fresh election was ordered. Tensions have increased ahead of Thursday's vote, which Odinga has said he is boycotting because the electoral commission has not made the reforms he seeks.

One member of Kenya's electoral commission has resigned, and its chairman has said it will be difficult to guarantee that the new vote will be credible.

Human rights groups have accused Kenyatta's government of using police to clamp down on dissent. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch last week said police killed at least 67 opposition supporters in demonstrations after the results of the August vote were announced.

Violence has followed some previous elections. During a prayer meeting Sunday, Kenyatta said the country narrowly avoided plunging into civil war after the flawed 2007 election, when more than 1,000 people were killed. Kenyatta was charged with orchestrating that violence, but the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court dropped the charges while citing threats to witnesses, bribery and interference.

Without citing the election, Pope Francis on Sunday spoke of his hopes for Kenya, telling faithful in St. Peter's Square that the nation was in his thoughts.

"I am following, with particular attention, Kenya, which I visited in 2015, and for which I pray so that all the country will know how to face the current difficulties in a climate of constructive dialogue, having at heart the search for the common good," Francis said.

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Associated Press writer Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.

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