By C Bryson Hull and Barry Moody
Nairobi - Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki said on Saturday he was ready to form a national unity government to end Kenya's bloody turmoil but the opposition brushed the offer aside, saying he must step down and negotiate.
After a week of political violence and tribal clashes since the disputed December 27 election, Kibaki said he would accept a unity government "that would not only unite Kenyans but would also help in the healing and reconciliation process".
But the opposition said the offer changed nothing and only internationally mediated talks would end a crisis that has killed at least 300 people and forced 250 000 from their homes.
"My position has not changed. We want a negotiated settlement. Our starting point is that Kibaki is there illegally. He should not come to the negotiating table as the president," opposition leader Raila Odinga told reporters.
Kibaki's office issued his offer after he met the top US Africa diplomat, Jendayi Frazer. President George W Bush sent Frazer to Nairobi on Friday to try to help end the crisis.
Odinga, who had appeared on course to win the vote until Kibaki was handed a narrow victory last Sunday, says the election was rigged and his rival is an illegal president.
He appeared to have ruled out a national unity government even before Kibaki's statement.
"We know how governments of national unity operate. We have been there before with Kibaki. That is a way to cheat Kenyans of their rights," Odinga said after meeting Frazer earlier.
Odinga helped Kibaki win power in a 2002 election but says the president broke a promise to award him a new prime minister's position after the victory.
Their rivalry dates from then and the distrust is one of the obstacles to a deal to end the current violence.
Kibaki's office said Frazer had "commended President Kibaki for reaching out to the opposition in order to stop the violence and called on all parties involved to embrace dialogue as a way out of the current situation".
It quoted Frazer as saying Kibaki had shown "commitment to ending the political impasse" by extending an "olive branch to the opposition".
The refusal of the two men to negotiate has frustrated both Kenyans and Western powers and prolonged the crisis.
Odinga's spokesperson, Salim Lone, said the opposition leader had a long and useful meeting with Frazer, an Assistant Secretary of State.
Odinga reiterated the opposition's demands that a transitional government be formed to prepare for a new presidential vote within three to six months.
"We're willing to meet Mr Kibaki as long as there is international mediation," Lone added.
"Without it, this crisis will only fester and get worse."
Frazer's mission was the latest attempt at mediation by world powers horrified by the turmoil in what had been seen as one of the continent's most stable democracies, and an ally of the West in its efforts to counter al Qaeda.
Kibaki was sworn in at his residence only an hour after the results were announced on Sunday. Opposition anger exploded around the country in demonstrations and tribal killings that only subsided on Friday.
The United Nations says the violence has uprooted 250 000 people - far more than previously feared.
UN officials were scrambling to get food to people facing starvation after fleeing violence in the west, that included the burning to death of 30 people barricaded in a church.
The World Bank has said the unrest could hurt Kenya's impressive economic gains and harm neighbouring countries that rely on it as the region's business and transport hub.
Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are suffering fuel shortages. The UN World Food Programme says its main problem in feeding the displaced has been getting trucks to western Kenya.
International observers say last week's election fell short of key democratic standards.