By George Obulutsa and Humphrey Malalo
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's doctors union said on Thursday a seven-week strike would continue as long as needed to secure demands for better pay and conditions, ignoring a court ruling ordering a return to work in five days or jail for union leaders.
The strike, which began on Dec. 5, has emptied hospital beds as relatives take patients to care for them at home and poses a challenge for the government in an election year, as it seeks to prevent other state workers taking action for higher pay.
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. But she gave them a two-week period for negotiations to avoid jail.
On Thursday, she extended the period for 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 where leaders of the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists' Union (KMPDU) refused the time limit imposed by the court.
"The doctors are on strike and the strike will continue until that day their demands placed before the government are met," Ouma Oluga, KMPDU secretary general, told reporters.
Local newspapers have reported critically ill patients left unattended and published images of abandoned hospital beds after 5,000 members of the KMPDU -- the only union representing doctors in government hospitals -- began their walkout.
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 Richard Lough)