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Death toll rises to 19 in Kenyan election violence

The violence in the Mombasa area is separate from the ethnic violence that could break out related to election results, and which left more than 1,000 dead after the 2007 vote.

Masaai line up to vote in a general election in Ilbissil, Kenya, on Monday. Riccardo Gangale / AP Photo
Masaai line up to vote in a general election in Ilbissil, Kenya, on Monday. Riccardo Gangale / AP Photo

NAIROBI // As millions of Kenyans waited in long lines to vote in the nation's presidential election today, officials said a secessionist group on the coast launched multiple attacks which killed 19 people.

It was Kenya's first presidential election since more than 1,000 people died in postelection attacks five years ago, and officials have been working to prevent a repeat of the massive violence.

A group of 200 secessionists armed with guns, machetes and bows and arrows set a trap for police in the pre-dawn hours, killing five officers, said Insp Gen David Kimaiyo. One attacker also died. The group, known as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), had threatened election-day attacks.

Four police were hacked to death with machetes, coast police boss Aggrey Adoli said.

The MRC had threatened election day attacks, and Gen Kimaiyo said police were planning a raid "that will see the end of the MRC".

The MRC believes Kenya's coast should be an independent country. Their cause, which is not defined by religion, is fuelled by the belief that political leaders in Nairobi have taken the coast's land for themselves, impoverishing indigenous residents.

In addition to the attack in Mombasa, police blamed the MRC for three deadly attacks in nearby Kilifi. A witness visited a morgue and saw four dead young men wearing red bandanas – a sign of the MRC – who had been shot to death, most likely by police.

An AP tally of the violence found that four police and three MRC members died in Mombasa, while seven MRC members, six government officials and two civilians died in the three attacks near the coastal city of Kilifi, all according to police and mortuary officials.

The violence in the Mombasa area is separate from the ethnic violence that could break out related to election results, and which was so deadly after the 2007 vote.

The country's two leading presidential candidates condemned the attacks. The prime minister, Raila Odinga, called it a "heinous act of aggression" while the deputy prime minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, said he was discouraged by the news but was sure the security situation would be brought under control.

Authorities flew in an additional 400 police officers to Mombasa to increase security. The UN restricted the movement of its staff on the coast because of the violence.

"People with ill intent must be stopped by all means," Mr Kimaiyo said, explaining that he directed police to use their guns to stop further loss of life, a sensitive directive given that police killed more than 400 people during the 2007-2008 post-election violence.

Long queues around the country left voters frustrated in the election's early hours. The use of anti-fraud fingerprint voter ID technology for the first time appeared to be greatly slowing the process. The technology broke down in many locations.

Mr Odinga voted at a primary school and acknowledged what he called voting challenges. He said poll workers were taking action to "remedy the anomalies".

"Never before have Kenyans turned up in such numbers," he said. "I'm sure they're going to vote for change this election."

Mr Kenyatta gave a conciliatory message intended to help Kenyans accept the election outcome without violence: "This nation will have a president and that president will represent all Kenyans."

The chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Ahmed Issack Hassan, urged voters not to be intimidated by the violence. But he also told poll workers that they must ensure voters do not spend hours in queues - especially the wrong queue. Election officials must prevent voters from becoming agitated and leaving without voting, he said.

The country's leaders have been working for months to reduce election-related tensions, but multiple factors make more vote violence likely. The tribes of the top two presidential candidates have a long history of tense relations and, with voters also electing 47 new governors, the chances of electoral problems at the local level occuring inevitably increase.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr Kenyatta faces charges at the International Criminal Court for orchestrating Kenya's 2007-2008 post-election violence. If he wins, the US and Europe could scale back relations with Kenya, and Mr Kenyatta may have to spend a significant portion of his presidency at The Hague. Mr Kenyatta's running mate, William Ruto, also faces charges at the ICC.

Long queues began forming early yesterday. In Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, about 1,000 people stood in several lines at one polling station before daybreak. One voter, Arthur Shakwira, said he got in line at 4am but left the queue over confusion about which line to stand in.

"We should prepare these voting areas sooner," Mr Shakwira said. "Confusion. All the time it's confusion."

An election observer from a Ugandan group called the National Consultative Council, Christopher Kibanzanga, said he was impressed by the huge turnout.

"This can only be likened to South Africa when (Nelson) Mandela was elected. The people have turned up in large numbers. The spirit of patriotism and nationalism has come back. I think this is a perfect process," Mr Kibanzanga said.

The Kenyatta-Odinga rivalry goes back decades. Mr Kenyatta is an ethnic Kikuyu and the son of Kenya's founding president. Mr Odinga is an ethnic Luo whose father was the country's first vice president. Polls show the two in a close race, with support for each in the mid 40 per cent range. Eight candidates are running for president, making it likely the top two will be forced to go to a run-off in April.

Most voters in Kibera - such as Amos Achola, who said he arrived at the polling station at 2am - support Mr Odinga.

"I think he will win, but if he doesn't win I'll abide by the outcome," Mr Achola said. "The other guy is also a Kenyan. If Kenyatta wins I'll accept it but I won't like it. But I don't want violence."

In an attack late on Sunday in the city of Garissa, near the Somali border, two people died - a Red Cross paramedic and a driver. Officials said a candidate for parliament had been the target but was not hit.

In the weeks leading up to yesterday's vote, described by Mr Odinga as the most consequential since independence from the British in 1963, peace activists and clerics worked to ensure the election would be peaceful despite lingering tensions.

Mr Odinga's acrimonious loss to president Mwai Kibaki in 2007 triggered violence that ended only after the international community stepped in. Mr Odinga was named prime minister in a coalition government led by Mr Kibaki, with Mr Kenyatta named deputy prime minister.

About 100,000 police officers will be on duty during an election in which about 14 million people are expected to vote.