NAIROBI (Reuters) - East African foreign ministers arrived in Kenya on Wednesday for a meeting the opposition has threatened to demonstrate against, while the rival sides hammered away at talks to end the post-election crisis.
The opposition has threatened more street protests if the government holds Thursday's planned meeting of the seven-nation, regional bloc IGAD, whose rotating chairmanship is now held by President Mwai Kibaki.
Kenya's government is banking on goodwill in African diplomatic circles -- earned from years as a continental peacemaker -- to win support for its view that the opposition should challenge the vote in court, not in the streets.
IGAD issued a communique last week that backed that position, while supporting the talks. The opposition argues that Kenya's institutions are too flawed or biased to do the job.
Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, mediating between the opposing sides about a disputed election, has chided the opposition for threatening mass action while talks were under way.
For a second day, he pushed the two sides to focus on the election dispute. The opposition says Kibaki stole the vote and does not recognise him as the victor, while the government says he was legally elected and the opposition should make it challenge in court.
The bloodshed ensuing from the Dec. 27 election has seriously harmed Kenya's image as a stable and prosperous country in a turbulent part of Africa.
On Wednesday, the Central Bank said Kenya's economic growth was unlikely to reach its forecast of 8 percent because of damage to the $1-billion-a-year tourism sector and others.
It also said first-quarter inflation would be higher.
The Kenya Tourist Board said arrivals for the first quarter would be 27,000 visitors, less than a tenth of its pre-election prediction of 315,000.
More than 1,000 people have been killed -- mostly in ethnic clashes and some by police during protests -- and about 300,000 displaced in one of Kenya's darkest moments since its independence from Britain 44 years ago.
The violence has laid bare divisions over land, wealth and power that date from colonial rule and have since been stoked by politicians.
'WE WILL MARCH'
Despite pledges by both sides to avoid provocative statements while Annan's talks were in progress, opposition leader Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) again used its strongest bargaining chip -- a threat of street protests.
"If the government goes ahead and holds the IGAD meeting, we will protest peacefully. We will march, carry placards, show our messages," an opposition official said.
The government has banned protests and most previous ones have ended in violence, looting or rioting.
Echoing a complaint it made when Kibaki attended an African Union summit as head of state last week, the ODM said the IGAD meeting would legitimise his position "through the back door".
Its attempts to get into the AU meeting failed, despite what diplomats say was heavyweight backing by South Africa.
The ODM has insisted on external mediation, saying the president has too much influence over the courts and state machinery.
The government views that as an insult to Kenya's sovereignty and points to the fact that Kibaki himself went to court in 1997 when he lost what he said was a rigged election.
(For special coverage from Reuters on Kenya's crisis see: http://africa.reuters.com/elections/kenya/)
(Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri, Helen Nyambura-Mwaura, George Obulutsa and Wangui Kanina in Nairobi)