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Kenyan police clash with opposition protesters over tax hikes

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By Ayenat Mersie and Humphrey Malalo

NAIROBI (Reuters) -Kenyan police fired dozens of teargas canisters into a crowd of opposition supporters on Friday as they marched into the main business district of the capital to protest over tax hikes.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga called the protests to oppose tax increases that have been imposed at a time when many are already struggling with high prices of basic commodities such as maize flour.

Kenya’s High Court ordered that the tax hikes be suspended but the government has raised petrol prices anyway, leading to a further court challenge.

Police arrested several protesters in the capital and in western Kenya, human rights group Amnesty International Kenya’s office said in a statement, without providing details.

There was no immediate comment by the police on the reports.

The government says the tax hikes, expected to raise an extra 200 billion shillings ($1.42 billion) a year, are needed to help deal with the country’s growing debt repayments, and fund job-creation initiatives.

Addressing about 2,000 supporters, Odinga accused President William Ruto’s government of failing to tackle the high cost of living, poaching opposition lawmakers and unilaterally moving to reconstitute the election commission.

“Members of parliament have betrayed the people,” he said, adding that Ruto has also contravened his own promises, justifying a movement for people to retake back their authority.

Since the two men faced off in a close election won by Ruto last August, they have clashed over a series of issues around the high cost of living and management of future elections.

TEARGAS, ROCKS

“Ruto is backed into a corner by a number of circumstances; some of his making, some he inherited,” said Fergus Kell, a researcher at London international affairs think-tank Chatham House, citing past loans and a tough global economy.

Odinga was trying to exploit the opportunity, but he has not presented his vision clearly, Kell said.

“I don’t think he is necessarily presenting a coherent alternative agenda to Ruto beyond having a platform to criticize him in what are very difficult times,” he said.

The High Court suspended the implementation of the finance law last week but the government raised the retail prices of petrol anyway, forcing the opposition senator who lodged the case to seek the jailing of the head of the energy sector regulator for contempt.

The court will rule on the contempt application on Monday and give further directions on the main suit on the same day.

After addressing his supporters in an open ground, Odinga started leading them on a march to another park in the main business district.

But police then started firing teargas to stop the crowd, some of whom threw rocks at the police before turning back.

Local media outlets had reported that the protesters were not allowed to enter the main business district, quoting the head of Nairobi police, Adamson Bungei.

Television news channels also showed footage of police firing teargas canisters to disperse protesters in the port city of Mombasa and other towns including Kisii in the west.

($1 = 140.9000 Kenyan shillings)

(Reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Humphrey Malalo; Additional reporting by Hereward Holland; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Devika Syamnath, Hugh Lawson, William Maclean)

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