Tue May 12, 2009 4:20pm BST
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Growing political tensions in Kenya must not be allowed to turn into a crisis that could lead to a return of last year's devastating post-election violence, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa said on Tuesday.
Kenya's unity government was formed last April to end turmoil that killed at least 1,300 people. But its members have done little but squabble since then while a raft of new corruption allegations surfaced, dismaying donors and voters.
Johnnie Carson said it was significant that his first substantive visit after his confirmation as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs was to Nairobi.
"We have seen and have felt, as far away as Washington, concerns about the stability of the coalition ... we are deeply concerned and worried whether the events of the last several weeks were again a prelude to a round of instability," he said.
Carson met President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the former opposition leader, as well as Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and other senior officials.
"The political tensions must not be allowed to turn into a political crisis, and a political crisis must not be allowed to turn into political violence," he told reporters.
Carson said rifts between their parties over issues like who would be the leader of government business in parliament probably just reflected "the tip of the political iceberg."
Other tensions likely existed below the surface, he added, which could threaten a disastrous return to unrest.
Business leaders say political instability is a bigger threat to Kenya's prospects than the global financial crisis.
Growth in the previously booming economy slowed to around 2.0-2.5 percent last year, largely due to the violence. The government sees the figure at between 2.0-3.0 percent in 2009.
"The United States regards Kenya as the most important country in east Africa and the most important country in the greater Horn region," Carson said. "We look at it as the keystone state, economically, commercially and financially."
He said all his discussions with Kenya's top politicians had been candid, forthright and cordial.
"We came here not to threaten but to warn a friend about a deep concern, and to express that concern in very clear and precise ways," the U.S. official said.
(Editing by Jack Kimball)
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