Polls open in tense Kenya presidential race

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Nairobi  March 04 2013 (SDN)—Polls have opened in Kenya for the first presidential election since deadly ethnic violence that killed more than 1,200 people after a 2007 ballot.

The two rivals for the presidency, prime minister Raila Odinga and his deputy Uhuru Kenyatta, have publicly vowed that there will be no repeat of the violence, which displaced more than 600,000 people. On the eve of the election, outgoing president Mwai Kibaki appealed for a peaceful vote.

“I also make a passionate plea for all of us to vote peacefully. Indeed, peace is a cornerstone of our development,” Kibaki, barred from seeking a third five-year term, told Kenyans in a televised address before polling day.

But violence began early, with police in the coastal city of Mombasa reporting a night-time raid by a gang of dozens of suspected militia.

At least seven people were killed in the incident, including five police, according to Al Jazeera sources.

Sources reported that it was the work of a local militia known as the Mombasa Republican Council, a secessionist group on Kenya’s coast.

Tensions are nonetheless running high as the country’s 14m registered voters head to the polls: A police spokesman said that 99,000 officers have been deployed. The authorities hope the deployment will help avert a repeat of deadly violence in December 2007.

Voters on Monday will cast six ballots for the president, parliament, governors, senators, councillors and a special women’s list.

Some 23,000 observers, including 2,600 international monitors, will also be deployed, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

But watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have warned that the risk of renewed political violence is “perilously high.” Many Kenyans have left the cities to wait out the vote in their home villages.

Trials are expected to start later this year at the International Criminal Court for Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto; if they win, the president and vice president could be absent on trial for years.

Al Jazeera’s James Brownsell, reporting from Kibera, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, said that thousands have turned up there to vote.

“Most have been waiting since before dawn, but the huge crowds are largely good-natured and paitient,” he said.

“There is a real sense of history being made here, as people get set to renew their nation.”

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