Reuters International

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A Kenyan court on Thursday ordered doctors to end a strike in the next five days or face jail after a stoppage of more than six weeks that has plunged state hospitals into crisis at the start of an election year.

Justice Hellen Wasilwa had initially handed union leaders a suspended one-month sentence on Jan. 12 after they defied a December ruling declaring the strike illegal. She had also given them a two-week period for negotiations to avoid jail.

On Thursday, she extended the period for the doctors to call off the strike by five days. "The role of this court is to bring a solution, and an amicable solution," she said when announcing the extension.

Several thousand doctors and their supporters marched from the court to the centre of Nairobi for a meeting where union leaders were to discuss their response to the court order.

The 5,000 members of the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists' Union (KMPDU) first walked out on Dec. 5. Since then, newspapers have reported patients in critical condition left unattended and published images of empty hospital beds as families have taken patients home to look after them.

The union is demanding the fulfilment of a 2013 agreement which it says awarded doctors a 150-180 percent pay rise on basic salaries, a review of working conditions and promotions criteria, as well as hiring of more staff in state hospitals.

The East African state's government says it can only afford a 40 percent pay rise but would work to meet other conditions.

"We are not refusing to pay doctors. But if they ask ridiculous amounts, you have to (explain) why we cannot afford that," Finance Minister Henry Rotich told Citizen TV on Wednesday, saying conceding would encourage more worker strikes.

Lecturers at public universities launched a strike last week, a further headache to the government in the approach to presidential and parliamentary elections in August when President Uhuru Kenyatta will seek a second and final term.

(Reporting by George Obulutsa and Humphrey Malalo; writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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