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Kenya VP trial witness recalls massacre

04:14 Wed Sep 18 2013
AAP

The first witness in Kenya Vice President William Ruto's crimes against humanity trial broke down as she testified how a singing, machete-wielding mob trapped thousands inside a church and set it ablaze.

The woman, whose identity is protected and referred to only as "Witness P0536", told the International Criminal Court that "around 3000" youths surrounded the church where she had joined some 2000 people in hiding.

"They were painted with white clay... some had machetes, axes and sticks," she said, adding "they were singing".

"We were all trying to find a way to escape. I was carrying my small child with me," the witness recalled on Tuesday on the opening day of the prosecution's case against Ruto.

"The church was set alight," said the woman, whose face was pixellated on television screens and her voice disguised as she testified in Swahili, before she broke down sobbing.

She described how the church roof was covered with fuel, allegedly "carried in a blue plastic jerrycan" by a local opposition leader.

The witness said bicycles were used to block a main entrance of the church to stop people from escaping while youths laid in wait at another exit.

"When somebody tried to leave the church, they would grab the person and push them back inside," she said.

"I went mad," she told the judges.

The prosecution alleges the massacre was part of a plan of ethnic violence orchestrated by Ruto to "satisfy his thirst for power" after disputed 2007 elections. More than 1000 people died in the post-poll unrest.

Presiding judge Chile Eboe-Osuji cut short proceedings before lunch to give the witness a chance to compose herself.

Ruto, 46, and his co-defendant, Kenyan radio boss Joshua arap Sang, 38, stand accused of organising and stoking the worst violence in the east African country since independence in 1963. They are pleading not guilty.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ruto's former political foe turned ally, begins his own trial for crimes against humanity at the court on November 12. He has also proclaimed his innocence.

The violence, which laid bare simmering ethnic tensions, was mainly directed at members of Kenya's largest Kikuyu tribe, who were perceived as supporters of then president Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU).

Initial attacks quickly led to reprisals, with homes torched and more people hacked to death.

Prosecutors opened their case against Ruto looking at the church massacre at Kiambaa village, about 11 kilometres south of the western Rift Valley town of Eldoret, on New Year's Day 2008.

The prosecution alleges that between 17 to 35 people were burnt alive after supporters of Ruto's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) locked ethnic Kikuyus in the church and set it on fire.

Ruto and Sang each face three charges of murder, deportation and persecution.

The cases have been mired in accusations of witness intimidation, allegations dismissed by the defence even though several witnesses pulled out of giving testimony.