Kenya was hit by a series of terrorist attacks today as millions waited in long queues to vote in the presidential election.

A group demanding independence for the country’s coastal regions launched multiple attacks which killed 19 people.

It was Kenya’s first presidential election since more than 1,000 people died in post-election violence five years ago, and officials have been working to prevent a repeat.

A group of 200 rebels armed with guns, machetes and bows and arrows set a trap for police in the coastal city of Mombasa in the pre-dawn hours.

Four officers were hacked to death with machetes.

The rebels – the Mombasa Republican Council – had threatened election day attacks, but police said they 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.

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 top two presidential candidates condemned the Mombasa attacks. Prime minister Raila Odinga called it a “heinous act of aggression” during a historic exercise. Rival Uhuru Kenyatta said he was discouraged by the news but he was sure the security situation would be brought under control.

Police said the MRC were trying to stop voter turnout, but the long queues seen across the country also formed in Mombasa.

The delays 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.

Mr 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.”

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.”

Official results are not expected until later in the week. A run-off between the top presidential contenders is likely in April, unless one unexpectedly captures more than 50% of ballots from among the pool of eight candidates.

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 Mr 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 he may have to spend a significant portion of his presidency on trial at The Hague. His running mate, William Ruto, also faces charges at the ICC.

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.

The Kenyatta-Odinga rivalry goes back decades. Mr Kenyatta is an ethnic Kikuyu who is 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% range.

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