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By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - The spokesman of a banned Kenyan coastal separatist movement has been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the killing of nine policemen who were hacked to death on election day.
The officers were killed by up to 200 masked men wearing trademark red bandanas and wielding machetes in two separate attacks during what was otherwise a largely peaceful election on March 4.
The authorities accuse the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) of trying to disrupt the vote and organising attacks that left 15 people dead. Three MRC members were charged on Tuesday with murdering four police officers on the same day.
The MRC has denied any involvement in the attacks.
The MRC had threatened to disrupt voting if their demand for secession of the entire coastal strip, including Kenya's tourist beaches, was not met by authorities in Nairobi.
President Mwai Kibaki has flatly rejected the demand for secession, refusing any negotiations whatsoever.
Secession would transform Kenya into a landlocked country, with no direct access to the Indian Ocean, where it has a port in Mombasa that is the trade gateway for the region.
Police said MRC spokesman Rashid Mraja was arrested on Wednesday evening as he tried to cross back into Kenya from Tanzania, where many other MRC leaders are hiding in exile.
"We believe he, with the other MRC leaders authorised and coordinated attacks and killings of our officers and innocent civilians on the morning of the elections," Robert Kitur, Coast deputy police chief, told Reuters on telephone.
Kitur said Mraja would face several charges, including the murder of the police officers on election day.
He is already accused in a separate case of inciting members of the group to violence. The police are also looking for MRC leader Omar Mwamnuadzi and secretary Randu Ruwa, who they say have gone into hiding.
Kenyan authorities arrested most of the MRC's leaders over the past six months in a crackdown ahead of the vote, a move that analysts say has largely neutralised the group's capacity for widespread disruption.
However, sporadic acts of violence attributed to its members has left many coastal residents afraid and damaged Kenya's image as a tourist paradise.
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by James Macharia and Alison Williams)