By Maggie Fick
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Passengers jostled with ticket touts and hawkers at Kenya's main bus stations on Thursday as thousands started leaving cities before next week's vote, some because they are registered in rural wards, others because they are scared of violence.
Jitters over the Aug. 8 polls, which come a decade since 1,200 people were killed in ethnic unrest after a disputed election, intensified this week with the torture and murder of a senior election commission official.
Printing company worker George Omondi, an ethnic Luo, said he was taking his wife and children back to their home village of Oyugis in western Kenya, a stronghold of opposition leader and fellow Luo Raila Odinga.
"I won't risk my life by staying in Nairobi," Omondi said, as he pushed through a scrum of people to board a bus at Nairobi's central bus station.
"I'm going to my village and will stay there until after results are announced. We feel safer at home."
Voters in the East African nation of 49 million will pick a president, members of parliament and regional authorities.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is facing off against long-time rival Raila Odinga, was charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating the 2007 unrest, but the case against him and his current deputy, William Ruto, collapsed.
Odinga ratcheted up the rhetoric a notch this week, telling Reuters at a campaign rally near Nairobi that the only way for Kenyatta to win was by rigging the poll.
Kenyatta hit back with a challenge to Odinga to present the evidence.
"The electoral commission has told us that they have put in place all the necessary arrangements to ensure there will be no rigging, but he keeps insisting so maybe he should tell us how," Kenyatta told Reuters at a campaign rally east of Nairobi.
SPREAD OF FEAR
The government acknowledged that many were nervous.
"There is a lot of spread of fear ... which is making some Kenyans choose to leave where they stay to go to their villages where they perceive it is more peaceful," senior interior ministry official Karanja Kibicho told a news conference.
He said the government was deploying more than 150,000 officers from the police and other agencies including the wildlife service to secure nearly 41,000 polling stations.
Transport companies said twice as many 65-seater buses had left Nairobi's biggest bus station, Machakos, as normal, a field day for the ubiquitous traders selling everything from radios and torches to snacks and cans of drink.
There were similar scenes in the coastal city of Mombasa, where bus conductors were busily strapping mattresses, plastic jerry cans and suitcases onto the tops of buses.
"In 2008 I lost all my household property because of chaos arising from the elections. I also survived by chance," said Hemedi Mbutua, a 45-year-old quarry worker, traveling to his village in western Kenya.
"I swore never to be around during elections."
Thousands of others who had registered to vote in their home villages were taking advantage of a few days out of town with old friends and family.
"The major reason people are traveling is to vote. Many people have registered at home," said Machokos chairman Paul Ouma.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa and John Ndiso, George Obulutsa, Katharine Houreld, Rajiv Golla in Nairobi; Writing by Duncan Miriri and Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens)