By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya on Saturday told members of a separatist group to surrender or face arrest as the east African country intensified a crackdown on the movement ahead of an election next year.
The Mombasa Republican Council's (MRC) campaign for the secession of Kenya's Indian Ocean coastal strip, a tourist hotspot and trade hub, is just one of many concerns ahead of the March election, the first since the 2007 vote after which some 1,200 people were killed and thousands were displaced.
"I am asking all MRC officials and members who are still out there to surrender voluntarily and also surrender their weapons this weekend," Coast province commissioner Samuel Kielele said at a gathering for national day celebrations in Mombasa.
"We know them and we will go for them if they don't heed this call. We will go for them and arrest them," he said.
President Mwai Kibaki also said his government would take decisive action against those who "issued threats of secession or those who threaten our security".
Earlier this week, Kenyan police arrested MRC leader Omar Mwamnuadzi and later charged him with possession of firearms and incitement to violence. A Kenyan court also charged a lawmaker and prominent Muslim preacher for inciting violence after he said he would be willing to fund the group.
A Mombasa court issued arrest warrants on Friday for five MRC officials for failing to appear in court to answer charges of being members of an unlawful society.
MRC's grievances stem from what it calls decades of social and economic marginalization of the people in the coastal region of Kenya, east Africa's largest economy.
Earlier this month, MRC spokesman Mohamed Mraja and secretary Randu Nzai Ruwa were charged with inciting members to disobey the law, shortly after a gang of youths brandishing machetes attacked a cabinet minister and killed his bodyguard.
Police linked the attack to the MRC, but the group denied involvement. Kenyan security agents investigating the group, formed in 1999, believe it is backed by wealthy Arabs.
Kenyan officials say MRC is infiltrated by fighters from al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group al Shabaab, which has waged a five-year insurgency against Somalia's government in 2007.
Kenya's troops crossed into Somalia a year ago to crush the militants whom it blamed for attacks and kidnappings on its soil. Three weeks ago, Kenya's defense forces - under the umbrella of African Union troops (AMISOM) - took control of the Somali port city of Kismayu, al Shabaab's last major bastion.
Police have carried out raids in the coastal region against suspected al Shabaab members. Three suspects were killed in a raid on Wednesday in which a police officer also died.
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sophie Hares)