Nairobi - Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched on Friday a construction deal for the first berths in a proposed multi-billion dollar port, the day after ordering vast tracts of "stolen" land be repossessed.
The planned $24bn Lamu port project, due to be finished by 2030, is intended to serve much of east Africa, with oil pipelines to South Sudan and railways to Ethiopia and Uganda from the Indian Ocean coast.
But the area has been hit by a recent wave of deadly attacks, largely claimed by Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab militants but which Kenyatta has blamed on "local political networks".
On Thursday, Kenyatta said the massacres had been fuelled by companies seizing land covering a vast coastal zone nearly the size of Luxembourg "under dubious and corrupt circumstances".
The land, stretching over 2 000km² was taken by 22 companies between 2011 and 2012, he said, ordering it to be repossessed.
"This criminal conspiracy has dispossessed individuals and families living in this region of their land and opportunities for improving their well being," Kenyatta added.
"It has also helped fuel the current insecurity being experienced in the region, and frustrated our efforts in building cohesion in the country."
On Friday, the president said he had approved a $480m deal with a Chinese company for the first phase of construction of three of the 32 berths planned for the flagship project.
"The signing of this contract... is a major milestone," Kenyatta said in a statement, claiming it would make Kenya the "most attractive transport and logistics hub" in the region.
The project, known as LAPSSET - the Lamu Port South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor - includes not only a giant seaport to complement Kenya's hugely overstretched main port in Mombasa, but also a railway and refinery project.
Kenya has set aside $50m "to immediately commence" building by state-run China Communication Construction Company, Kenyatta said.
Officials said construction at the port - which has seen little activity since it was formally launched in a ceremony in March 2012 - would begin as soon as September.