Children in Kenya trooped through traffic jams back to class Monday as public schools reopened after a weeklong delay, a sign of returning normalcy that belies the deep political and ethnic tensions unleashed after a disputed presidential vote.
The official death toll from the country's post-election violence rose to at least 612 as more bodies were found.
In Nairobi, Kenya's two rival political parties braced for a showdown in parliament, which opens Tuesday to decide who becomes speaker of the East African country's national assembly.
Rachel Arungah, who chairs a special government committee set up to coordinate aid, said at least 612 people have died in the crisis so far. The latest count - up from 575 - was based on bodies found at mortuaries, homes and other places previously too dangerous to reach.
Arungah said the number of people displaced had decreased from 250,000 to around 200,000 as people moved in with relatives or returned home.
Since last week's conflict, primary and secondary school grounds in rural areas have been used as sites for displaced people, while others were vandalized or burned down by rioting youth. On Monday, some remained closed, but figures on how many or what percentage of students showed up nationwide were unavailable.
Rising confidence was apparent in the return of many children in Nairobi.
Evelyn Imbwana, a mother of three who has been displaced by the violence, said her children's' school was still closed because it was attacked and looted last week by rampaging mobs.
"I'm worried that now they'll fail their exams and need to repeat the year. That means more money for fees that I don't have," Imbwana said at sports ground where she sought shelter. "It's unfair that we suffer while politicians fight."
Another school in Nairobi's Kibera slum was missing half its 2,600 students, said headmistress Ruth Namulundu. Many parents fearing a restart of violence requested their children be transferred to their families' native villages, Namulundu said.
In Rift Valley province, west of Nairobi, decomposing bodies lay in two school compounds in the area around the town of Burnt Forest.
"We are not letting our children out of our sight. It is still insecure," said Tabitha Wanjiru, a parent at Rurigi, about 30 miles outside the Rift Valley provincial capital, Eldoret.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga accuses President Mwai Kibaki of stealing the election, which has been mired in so much controversy that even the head of the country's electoral commission has said he does not know who won.
Odinga's party has called for more protests Wednesday through Friday in an effort to step up pressure on Kibaki. Violent street protests nationwide damaged cities and burned countless homes to the ground.
Meanwhile, a leading Kenyan government minister on Monday rejected mediation by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, saying his party has won the disputed presidential election and a government is in place.
"We have not invited Kofi Annan or any other eminent personality to come and mediate," John Michuki, minister of roads and public works and a member of Kibaki's inner circle told reporters. "We won the elections. ... We do not see the point for anyone coming to mediate power-sharing."
Annan was expected to arrive in Nairobi Tuesday to take over mediation efforts, his office in Geneva said. Intense international pressure failed to push Kibaki and Odinga into face-to-face talks. The British Foreign Office has said Annan will work with Graca Machel, the wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.
Opposition officials said they would try to disrupt the first meeting of Kenya's new 222-seat parliament Tuesday, vowing to sit in government seats they say are rightfully theirs.
Lawmakers are expected to elect a speaker and a deputy speaker. No party has the needed two-thirds majority to ensure the election of its candidate, which sets the stage for lobbying on both sides.
"They are on a shopping expedition to buy as many MPs as they can, and Kenya's MPs are extremely buyable," Gladwell Wathoni Otieno, executive director of the Africa Center for Open Governance, said, referring to the country's pervasive corruption.
As the crisis dragged on, thousands of tourists canceled vacations, and the International Cricket Council moved Kenya's Intercontinental Cup match against Namibia from Nairobi to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said police were behind dozens of killings in the country's postelection turmoil and that they opened fire on both looters and opposition protesters under an unofficial "shoot to kill" policy.
The rights group called on Kenya's government Sunday to lift its ban on demonstrations and order police not to shoot at protesters.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe denied the accusations, saying officers have "acted strictly within the laws of this country."