By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya needs to improve security to ensure that voters are not deterred by recent grenade and gun attacks and threats by a coastal separatist movement to disrupt the election due next March, the head of the electoral commission said on Friday.
Kenya has been hit by several explosions since it sent troops into Somalia to crush al Shabaab militants in October.
A separatist group has threatened to boycott and disrupt voting if the government does not give in to their demand for secession for Kenya's Indian Ocean coastal strip, centered on the tourist center and port city of Mombasa.
President Mwai Kibaki has rejected their demand.
"Voting centers are naturally crowded and could be an easy target if our security is not alert. That already is a scare factor to anyone wishing to leave their house to vote," said Ahmed Isaack Hassan, chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which will oversee the vote.
It will be the first election in Kenya, east Africa's economic powerhouse, since a disputed poll in 2007 that triggered a politically driven ethnic slaughter in which more than 1,220 people were killed.
Violence in Kenya could hit investment, trade and transport in its landlocked neighbors, especially Rwanda and Uganda, which rely on Mombasa port for imports of food, consumer goods and fuel.
Kenya has blamed al Shabaab sympathizers for the explosions, including one last Friday near an air force base in the capital, a day before a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Hassan said the separatist group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), had threatened his staff.
"MRC is a threat. They have threatened our officials. We have to increase security or there will be a low turnout, both in registration and during the election in Coast," Hassan told a meeting near Mombasa.
"They are discouraging coastals from voting ... sometimes even threatening. This is worrying us because everyone will be at risk, voters, officials and innocent citizens."
Kenyan authorities outlawed the MRC in 2010, but the High Court lifted the ban in June, a ruling the government said it would appeal.
MRC spokesman Rashid Mraja said the police had been harassing party youths even after the court lifted the ban, and said the group's leaders would not be able to control its supporters should they retaliate.
"Our youth ... are slowly getting impatient. They have been tolerant all this while, and I am afraid we may soon be unable to contain them. When that happens let nobody blame us."
The MRC campaign for secession taps into deep local resentment at the fact that outsiders who have moved to the coast from elsewhere in Kenya now own much of the land and are the main employers.
If the coastal region were to secede, Kenya would become landlocked.
(Writing by James Macharia, editing by Tim Pearce)