Goran Tomasevic / Reuters
Five years after more than 1,200 people were killed in election-related violence, Kenyans went to the polls in a nationwide election seen as the most important in the country's 50-year history since independence.
NAIROBI, Kenya - At least 15 people were killed in attacks by machete-wielding gangs on Monday as Kenyans lined-up to vote in a presidential election they hope will rebuild the nation's image after a disputed 2007 poll unleashed weeks of tribal bloodshed.
Just hours before the start of voting and with long queues across the east African country, at least nine security officers in Kenya's restive coastal region were hacked to death, and six attackers were also killed, regional police chief Aggrey Adoli said. The total toll had earlier been put at 17.
There were two separate attacks which senior police officers blamed on a separatist movement - which, if confirmed, would suggest different motives to those that caused the post-2007 vote ethnic killings and could limit their impact.
Officials and candidates have made impassioned appeals to avoid a repeat of the tribal rampages that erupted five years ago when disputes over the poll result fuelled clashes between tribal loyalists of rival candidates.
More than 1,200 people were killed, shattering Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's most stable democracies and bringing its economy to a standstill.
As in 2007, the race has come down to a high-stakes duel between two candidates, this time between Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the loser in 2007 to outgoing President Mwai Kibaki. Both contenders will depend heavily on votes from tribal loyalists.
The United States and Western donors are worried about the stability of a nation that is an ally in the fight against militant Islam in the region but are also fretting what to do if the victor is Kenyatta, who faces charges by the International Criminal Court of orchestrating violence five years ago.
Provisional results could emerge hours after polls close at 5 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET) although the election commission has seven days to announce the official outcome. Polls suggest the election could go to a run-off, provisionally set for April.
Jan 28, 2008: Ethnic clashes have killed more than 800 people across Kenya, and post-election violence threatens to engulf a country that has long been a model of stability in Africa. NBC's Ned Colt reports.
"If elected, we will be able to discharge our duties," said Kenyatta's running mate, William Ruto who also faces charges of crimes against humanity. "We shall cooperate with the court with a final intention of clearing our names."
'We want our own country'
One of the attacks on Monday took place outside Mombasa and another in Kilifi about 80 miles to the north. Senior police officers blamed them on a separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), which wanted the national vote scrapped and a referendum on secession instead.
At the Kilifi site, Reuters footage showed a piece of paper on the ground with the words: "MRC. Coast is not Kenya. We don't want elections. We want our own country." But there was no formal claim and no independent confirmation of the assailants.
Even before the violence, many Kenyans were wary, notably in flashpoints last time. Some shopkeepers ran down stocks and some people in mixed tribal areas returned to their homelands.
Bernard Otundo, 36, queuing in Nairobi shortly before polls opened at 6 a.m. said he expected a peaceful vote.
Jan. 2, 2008: More than 100,000 people across Kenya have left their homes after riots and violence erupted following a disputed presidential election. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.
"Some of us have been here as early as 2 a.m. this morning. I got here slightly after 3 a.m.," he said. "There have been a lot of awareness campaigns against violence and I don't think it will happen this time around, whatever the outcome."
Kenya's neighbors are watching nervously, after their economies felt the shockwaves when violence five years ago shut down trade routes running through east Africa's biggest economy. Some landlocked states have stockpiled fuel and other materials.
Adding to tension, the al Shabaab Islamist militant group battling Kenyan peacekeeping troops in Somalia, repeated calls on Nairobi to remove its forces, threatening retaliation.