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Voters on Kenya's Coast Prepare for Election

Kenya's heavily-Muslim Coastal province has been intensely courted by the main presidential contenders before elections on Thursday. As Derek Kilner reports from Mombasa, public opinion polls in the province indicate dissatisfaction with the government of President Mwai Kibaki.

With campaigning officially over before presidential and parliamentary elections Thursday, the streets of Mombasa, Kenya's second city and its major port, are free of the megaphones and marches of a few days ago. But campaign posters still cover the walls of every available building, and the vote is on everybody's mind.

Challenger Raila Odinga has a substantial lead over President Mwai Kibaki in Coast Province, according to the most Mr. Odinga's pledge to decentralize government power, an idea that receives strong support on the coast.

Primary school teacher Ithman Mursal says government resources and wealth have been concentrated in the hands of an elite in Nairobi and President Kibaki's Central Province under the current government.

"We want the national resources to be equally divided to all regions so that we eliminate the idea of a few individuals benefiting from the resources," said Mursal. "Here in Mombasa, everything has been taken to Nairobi. Here we have a port. The headquarters of the Kenya Ports Authority is in Nairobi and yet we have the sea in Mombasa."

Another issue of concern, particularly for Mombasa's large Muslim population, is the government's cooperation in American counter-terrorism policies, including the transfer of suspects to locations including Ethiopia and the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Aboud Khalifa, a phone salesman, says he is particularly concerned by the government's policies.

"About the Muslims and the government all through these five years there was a lot of friction because they were puppets of the Americans," he said. "We are really tired of this stuff. There was not enough evidence for us to be taken to Guantanamo bay or Ethiopia, but still they did this stuff and we are tired of this."

The United States has been concerned about terrorism on Kenya's coast.

A bomb attack on the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 killed 219 people, and in 2002, 13 people were killed in an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel. Many people have been arrested coming across the border with Somalia to the North, including, critics charge, several Kenyan citizens.

Estimates indicate Muslims constitute nearly two million of Kenya's more than 14 million eligible voters.

But President Kibaki has also attempted to court the Muslim population, and the blue and red of his campaign t-shirts and posters are just as visible as Odinga's orange, at least on the city's main streets.

His backers, as in other parts of the country, emphasize Kibaki's achievements from his first term in office, including a strong record of economic growth and the introduction of free primary education.

Sammy Kamau, a lawyer, is one such supporter.

"I have seen what he has done. His record is good. He has improved the economy of Kenya. We have sign lives changing, even from the villages, we have seen development and we really appreciate it. I am voting because of what he has done, the track record, not mere talk," said Kamau.

While Mr. Odinga narrowly leads Mr. Kibaki in national opinion polls, many observers say the race is too close to call. Both candidates will be watching closely as Mombasa's voters queue up in the tropical heat on Thursday.