Mombasa - Kenya’s crucial elections were marred by violence on Monday.
Separatists armed with guns, machetes and bows and arrows launched attacks that killed 19 people on Kenya's coast, while gunmen elsewhere stormed two polling stations after millions of Kenyans waited in long lines to cast ballots in the East African country's first presidential election in five years.
Officials urged voters not to be intimidated by the violence amid fears of another round of the ethnic-related bloodshed in which more than 1 000 people died after the 2007 vote.
The election is widely viewed as a test of Kenya's democracy. It is the first presidential poll under a new constitution designed to prevent the ethnic violence that marred the previous poll.
The voting got off to a bloody start Monday when a group of 200 separatists set a trap for police in the coastal city of Mombasa in the pre-dawn hours, Inspector General David Kimaiyo said. Four police were hacked to death with machetes, coast police boss Aggrey Adoli said.
The separatist group - the Mombasa Republican Council - had threatened election day attacks, and 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. An Associated Press reporter visited a morgue and saw four dead young men wearing red bandannas - a sign of the MRC - who had been shot to death.
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.
After the polls closed, gunshots and an explosion rang out in the city of Garissa, near the Somali border, as gunmen stormed two polling stations, said Farah Maalim, the deputy speaker of parliament. It wasn't immediately clear if the attackers took any hostages, but the gunmen were in control of election material, Maalim said. Security forces launched a counter-attack on the gunmen.
The violence in the Mombasa and Garissa areas 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 top two presidential candidates condemned the Mombasa attacks. Prime Minister Raila Odinga called it a “heinous act of aggression” during a historic exercise. Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta said he was discouraged by the news but he was sure the security situation would be brought under control.
Authorities flew in an additional 400 police officers to Mombasa to increase security. The United Nations restricted the movement of its staff on the coast because of the violence.
“People with ill intent must be stopped by all means,” 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 2007-08 post-election violence.
Police said the MRC were trying to suppress voter turnout, but the long lines seen across the country also formed in Mombasa.
Those lines left voters frustrated in the election's early hours. Anti-fraud computers that scan thumbprints to identify registered voters were used for the first time and appeared to be greatly slowing the process. Equipment broke down in some polling stations and power blackouts made the technology useless in others. Many voting officials had to resort to going through the old voters' register.
George Kimoi, 42, waited two hours to vote. He said it was the first time he felt his ballot would actually count, after the government upgraded ballot security measures in the wake of allegations the last vote was rigged.
“I felt that it was important to wait and vote today because we need a new government,” he said.
Odinga voted at an elementary 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.”
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.”
Official results are not expected until Tuesday or Wednesday. A run-off between the top presidential contenders is likely in April, unless one unexpectedly captures more than 50 percent of ballots from among the pool of eight candidates.
Monday's separatist violence is different from the tribal, post-election violence experienced five years ago. The ethnic violence could still break out if Odinga or Kenyatta supporters feel their candidate was cheated out of a win.
In Kilifi, Nichodemus Shanga had hoped to vote at a primary school, but an MRC attack left several bodies lying on the ground, and he said officials didn't immediately remove them. Voting officials fled.
“I feel very bad because it is my right to vote. We came here at 5am asking them to remove the bodies so that we can vote, but they didn't do that and it has created a lot of tension and fear,” he said, noting that residents fear a police backlash.
The chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Ahmed Issack Hassan, urged voters not to be intimidated by the violence. He also told poll workers they must ensure voters don't spend hours in line, a common problem. Many polling stations were kept open after the 5pm closing time to accommodate late starts and long lines.
The country's leaders have been working for months to reduce election-related tensions, but multiple factors make more post-election violence possible. The tribes of the top two presidential candidates have a long history of tense relations, and 47 new governor races are being held, increasing the chances of electoral problems at the local level.
One big electoral factor is that Kenyatta faces charges at the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating Kenya's 2007-08 post-election violence. If he wins, the United States and Europe could scale back relations with Kenya, and Kenyatta may have to spend a significant portion of his presidency on trial at The Hague. Kenyatta's running mate, William Ruto, also faces charges at the ICC.
Pictures from across the country showed lines of voters snaking through fields, down streets and around corners.
Voter Arthur Shakwira said he got in line at 4am in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, but left over confusion about which line to stand in.
“We should prepare these voting areas sooner,” 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 turnout.
“This can only be likened to South Africa when (former president Nelson) Mandela was elected. The people have turned up in large numbers. The spirit of patriotism and nationalism has come back,” Kibanzanga said.
Odinga's acrimonious loss to President Mwai Kibaki in 2007 triggered violence that ended only after the international community stepped in. Odinga was named prime minister in a coalition government led by Kibaki, with Kenyatta named deputy prime minister.
The Kenyatta-Odinga rivalry goes back decades. Kenyatta is an ethnic Kikuyu who is the son of Kenya's founding president. 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-percent range.
Most voters in Kibera - like Amos Achola, who said he arrived at the polling station at 2am - support Odinga.
“I think he wins but if he doesn't win I'll abide by the outcome,” Achola said. “The other guy is also a Kenyan. If Kenyatta wins I'll accept it but I won't like. But I don't want violence.” - Sapa-AP