WASHINGTON — The State Department backed away Wednesday from its top African envoy's description of post-election violence in Kenya as "ethnic cleansing," saying it was too early to characterize the situation in such terms.

In comments aimed at easing emotional reactions to the phrase and potential comparisons to Rwanda's genocide and the ongoing conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, department spokesman Sean McCormack indicated that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer had been speaking for herself when she used the term "ethnic cleansing."

"She made some comments based on her firsthand assessment from a trip several weeks ago," McCormack told reporters, pointedly refusing to repeat the words, which refer to targeted attacks on and forcible displacements of specific ethnicities by people from other ethnic groups.

Asked repeatedly if the Bush administration shared Frazer's assessment, he replied: "She said what she said. I am going to stick to what I said." He also said that much of the violence was the result of "political tensions."

McCormack acknowledged that the situation in Kenya was of great concern and that some violent incidents and displacements appeared to be driven by ethnicity, especially in the western Rift Valley province.

"There's a serious issue of people being displaced for a variety of different reasons, including being forced from their homes based on ethnic identification," he said.

But those incidents are being reviewed by the State Department's Office of War Crimes Issues and no determinations have been made on defining them, he said.

"If they do document any instances of atrocities, we'll have to look at what next steps to take, but at this point we're not there yet," he said. "Very often, the case with these kind of circumstances is that you don't have a full understanding, a complete picture of what happened until after the situation is over and things have calmed down."

Earlier Wednesday in Ethiopia, Frazer said some of the violence in Kenya, which exploded after disputed elections last month and has claimed more than 800 lives, amounted to "ethnic cleansing" as it targeted members of certain tribes. She later explained her choice of words in a news conference.

"The first wave of this violence, it was primarily in the Rift Valley, and it was Kalenjin pushing out Kikuyu. But that may now be spreading to Kikuyus pushing out Luos and Kalenjins," she told reporters on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

"What I was talking about in terms of the ethnic cleansing that I saw was the immediate aftermath of the election, in which there was an organized effort to push people out of the Rift Valley," Frazer said, adding that she did not consider the killings a "genocide."

Western countries, in particular the United States, have been criticized for failing to respond to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and not doing enough to halt the Darfur conflict, which Washington, among few others, has characterized as "genocide," a legal term that if agreed on by the United Nations requires international action to halt.

"Ethnic cleansing," a phrase that first gained wide usage during the Balkans wars after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, is not a legal term but is regarded by many as a step below or precursor to "genocide" and as such carries significant symbolic weight.

Frazer's comments came amid thus far unsuccessful international efforts led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to press Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and his top political rival Raila Odinga, a Luo, to end three weeks of increasingly bloody violence that has shattered the country's image as an oasis of stability in volatile East Africa.

McCormack said it was more important to restore security to Kenya than it was to define the violence.

"All of this points to the need for the two political leaders, President Kibaki and Mr. Odinga, to come together, work with (Annan) to find a political solution, because the violence springs from the political tensions that have arisen in the wake of the contested election," he said.

McCormack also said a review of U.S. assistance to Kenya that is now under way would not likely result in any significant reductions in aid, the overwhelming majority of which is for humanitarian programs.

"Nobody's going to do anything, especially given the current political crisis and the violence that's ongoing, to in any way worsen the humanitarian situation in Kenya," he said.

The United States plans to give Kenya more than $540 million in aid this year, $481 million of which will go for HIV/AIDS programs. Less than 2 percent of U.S. aid to Kenya is earmarked for non-humanitarian projects this year.

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