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NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya has increased efforts to root out doping ahead of the Rio Olympics, the Kenyan athletics federation chief said on Friday, rejecting concerns by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that it is failing to tackle drugs cheats.
Isaac Mwangi, chief executive of Athletics Kenya (AK), said a new national anti-doping agency was carrying out more drugs testing and said Kenya would soon pass its first anti-doping laws.
"Kenya is doing the best it can," Mwangi told Reuters. "For us, athletics is a national matter, it brings a lot of national pride."
On Thursday the BBC reported that Kenya had missed a deadline this week to prove to WADA that it was doing enough to combat doping and could be declared a non-compliant nation.
That could see Kenyan medal prospects banned from the August games and hurt the East African nation's running heartlands, which depend on the financial rewards earned by elite runners.
Kenyan efforts to ensure its athletes can compete in Rio include a draft anti-doping law that would hand down heavy fines and at least three years in jail, the head of a government-backed anti-doping task force told Reuters.
"The Olympics are just months away and we want to win big and win clean as we have always done," Deputy President William Ruto said at an event on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi on Friday.
"We are working hard to make sure that when our athletes win, no one points fingers and doubts their efforts," he said.
Dozens of Kenyans have failed drugs tests in the past five years and several top officials have been accused of corruption, including Mwangi.
Two Kenyan athletes who failed drugs tests in August at the Beijing world championships, where Kenya topped the medals table, this week accused Mwangi of seeking bribes to reduce their bans. Mwangi and AK have rejected the allegations as malicious.
Global athletics has been in crisis since media reports in August alleged that endurance runners suspected of doping, including some Kenyans, had been winning a third of Olympic and world championship medals.
In addition, France is investigating former world athletics chief Lamine Diack on suspicion of corruption and money laundering linked to the concealment of positive drug tests in concert with Russian officials and the blackmailing of athletes.
WADA Director General, David Howman, said on Wednesday Kenya's anti-doping body - set up in 2013 but not active until late last year - must be independent and function properly as soon as possible.
"This is a vital step for a country of Kenya’s sporting stature to take if it is to effectively protect clean athletes,” Howman said.
WADA's statement came in response to the Beijing-related bribery allegations against Mwangi, the agency saying it was "extremely troubled" by the allegations.
Mwangi said the ADAK had been given a budget of 500 million shillings ($5 million) and has become operational. Testing in Kenya has been carried by a regional anti-doping organization, which is associated with WADA.
Mwangi said the ADAK had now also begun to conduct tests.
"With increased funding, there is increased activity, there is increased education, more outreach program, more testing in competition as well as out of competition," he said.
But local athletes and critics of Kenya's anti-doping efforts say ADAK's presence is still minimal.
Mwangi said Kenya's anti-doping drive would be boosted by a law that was likely to be passed by parliament soon, although the exact timetable was unclear. The bill has not yet been officially published.
"We will do the best to make sure our athletes...take part in the competition and that athletes who are clean represent the country in the best way possible," Mwangi added, referring to the Olympics.
Kenya's middle- and long-distance athletes are favorites to win gold in many track and field events at the Rio Games, but their preparations have been disrupted by persistent doping allegations and corruption scandals at AK.
In November, three Kenyan officials were referred to the Ethics Board of world athletics' governing body, the IAAF, over claims they embezzled funds relating to a sponsorship deal with U.S. sports giant Nike. The three men, including former AK President Isaiah Kiplagat, have denied any wrongdoing.
($1 = 101.6500 Kenyan shillings)
Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by George Obulutsa and Jon Boyle, Ralph Boulton