Kenya launched the construction of a massive port, railway and refinery Friday near a UNESCO-listed Indian Ocean island in a project it bills as the biggest ever in an African nation. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir unveiled a plaque at a ceremony to mark the official start of building work near Lamu island in Kenya\'s southeast. Nairobi hopes the $24.5 billion (18.5 billion euro) project will turn the east African country into a regional economic hub and propel it to become a middle-income economy in the next two decades. Dancers and singers marked the formal start of construction at the inauguration at a muddy Indian Ocean shore where pristine mangrove forest is already being cleared. The port to be constructed with 32 berths and be connected to Ethiopia and oil-rich South Sudan by a super-highway, a railway and a pipeline to export Juba\'s crude. The project is expected to be funded by regional financial institutions, governments and international lenders, with China believed to have major stake. However, Lamu residents protest that the huge port, although located some 10 kilometres (six miles) from the UNESCO-listed island, will impact on their livelihoods and accuse the government of ignoring their concerns. \"The demands for the rights of Lamu people have fallen on deaf ears,\" said a statement by Save Lamu, a coalition of local community groups in Lamu. \"We are greatly concerned that the lack of transparency, secrecy and poor accountability in the way the project is being implemented is a dismal reflection of our rights as governed by the constitution,\" it added. Conservationists fear that monster earth movers and dredgers will destroy the mangroves and plough ship channels through coral reefs that are crucial fish breeding grounds. \"We\'ll be losing a certain percentage of our coral reefs, and we\'ll be losing our pristine beaches to some extent, and also the fishing and breeding grounds for turtles,\" said Atwaa Salim Mohamed of the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust.