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The death toll from the ongoing protests in Kenya has reached 22, according to an official from the main doctors’ association, following violent clashes during anti-tax hike demonstrations.

Police opened fire on protesters who had stormed the parliament building, setting parts of it ablaze and causing injuries to scores of people on Tuesday.

The protests, initially peaceful and primarily youth-led, began last week with thousands of demonstrators marching in Nairobi and other cities against the recent tax increases. However, tensions escalated sharply on Tuesday afternoon as police responded with live ammunition against the crowds ransacking the parliament complex.

The violence has shocked the nation, leading President William Ruto’s government to deploy the military to support the police in managing what has been termed a “security emergency.” Defence Minister Aden Bare Duale confirmed the deployment, emphasizing the need to restore order amid the unrest.

“So far, we have at least 22 people killed, but this is not the final number,” Simon Kigondu, president of the Kenya Medical Association said, adding that he had never seen “such level of violence against unarmed people.”

“Deaths, mayhem”, read the front-page headline on the Standard newspaper, while the Daily Nation described the situation as “Pandemonium”, saying: “The foundations of the country have been shaken to the core.”

An official at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi said Wednesday that medics were treating “160 people… some of them with soft tissue injuries, some of them with bullet wounds”.

In a late-night press briefing, Ruto warned that his government would take a tough line against “violence and anarchy”, likening some of the demonstrators to “criminals”.

“It is not in order or even conceivable that criminals pretending to be peaceful protesters can reign terror against the people, their elected representatives and the institutions established under our constitution and expect to go scot-free,” he said.

The government has been taken by surprise by the intensity of opposition to its tax proposals –- mostly led by young, Gen-Z Kenyans — which culminated in the scenes at parliament that played out live on television.

Images shared on local TV stations after crowds broke through the barricades showed the building ransacked, with burnt furniture and smashed windows.

As police fired at the angry crowds, leaving several bodies strewn on the ground, protest organisers urged people to walk home together and “stay safe”.

– ‘Madness’ –

A heavy police presence was deployed around parliament early on Wednesday, according to an AFP reporter, the smell of tear gas still in the air.

A policeman standing in front of the broken barricades to the complex told AFP he had watched the scenes unfold on TV.

“It was madness, we hope it will be calm today,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the rallies in various Kenyan cities had been largely peaceful.

However, tensions escalated in Nairobi later in the day, with some protesters hurling stones at police, who deployed tear gas and water cannons before firing live bullets.

AFP journalists saw three people bleeding heavily and lying motionless on the ground near parliament.

– ‘Brute force’ –

The unrest has alarmed the international community, with the White House appealing for calm and more than 10 Western nations — including Canada, Germany and Britain — saying they were “especially shocked by the scenes witnessed outside the Kenyan Parliament”.

UN chief Antonio Guterres and the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, have also expressed deep concern.

Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, who heads the Azimio coalition, accused the government of unleashing “brute force on our country’s children”.

Rights watchdogs have also accused the authorities of abducting protesters.

The police have not responded to any AFP requests for comment.

– Cost of living –

Long-running grievances over the rising cost of living spiralled last week as lawmakers began debating proposed tax hikes in the 2024 finance bill.

The cash-strapped government says the increases are needed to service the country’s massive debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equal to roughly 70 per cent of Kenya’s GDP.

After rolling back some of the more controversial proposals — which would have affected bread purchases, car ownership, and financial and mobile services — the government now intends to increase fuel prices and export duties.

Kenya’s treasury has warned of a gaping budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings, following Ruto’s decision to roll back some of the tax hikes.

While Kenya is among East Africa’s most dynamic economies, a third of its 52 million population live in poverty.

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