A witness says three people were killed in a small town in Kenya's Rift Valley during a confrontation between police and residents over the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Police confirmed the deaths but gave a different account. Human rights activists for weeks have protested alleged killings by Kenyan police officers while enforcing virus-related restrictions. They also accuse officers of using the measures to extort bribes.
Kenneth Kaunda told The Associated Press that violent protests erupted in Lessos on Thursday after residents tried to prevent police officers from taking a motorcycle taxi rider to the station for not wearing a mask. Kenya has made it compulsory to wear face masks in public and failure to comply brings a $200 fine, a hefty fee for many.
Kaunda says residents were tired of police shaking down people for not wearing masks. He asserted that a policeman who had arrested the driver opened fire at the angry crowd, killing a local cobbler.
"He shot at least five times into the crowd," said Kaunda, a stone mason.
Angered by the cobbler's death, residents set fire to the house of the local police chief and attacked a police station with stones. In the chaos two other people were shot dead, Kaunda said. Police said something else sparked the incident.
Kenya's police spokesman Charles Owino said in a statement that other motorcycle riders tried to prevent their colleague from being arrested for carrying two passengers. The government has restricted motorcycle taxis to carrying one passenger to prevent the spread of the virus.
Owino accused the motorcycle taxi riders of trying to "snatch" a rifle from the arresting officer, leading to the shooting. Police inspector-general Hillary Mutyambai told the AP that the police officer who shot the cobbler had been suspended from work and arrested.
Kenya's police force for two decades has been ranked the country's most corrupt institution. It's also Kenya's most deadly, killing far more people than criminals do, according to human rights groups.
In the last three months 15 people, including a 13-year-old boy, have been killed by police while enforcing the new restrictions, a watchdog group has said. Human rights activists now put the figure at 21.
Activists say there has been no groundswell of widespread public support for change in Kenya, one of Africa's biggest economies, even as protests have erupted in many parts of the world over police abuse. But human rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi said that despite the loss of life, it is encouraging to see the public is no longer subdued.
"It is heartening that this time, after the cops killed the first man, the people didn't sit back but went for the police in protest," he tweeted. "Serves notice that any other time won't be the usual resignation."