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Kenya coast separatist official charged with inciting violence

* Separatists spokesman pleads not guilty, released on bond

* Secessionist want coastal tourist zone to be independent

* Group says it will disrupt polls if not allowed separation

By Joseph Akwiri

MOMBASA, Kenya, Oct 8 (Reuters) - A senior leader of a separatist group campaigning for the secession of Kenya's coastal strip was charged in court on Monday with inciting members of his group to disobey the law by declaring the coast is not a part of the east African country.

Mohamed Mraja, the spokesman for the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), denied the charges which came days after four people were killed when a gang of youths brandishing machetes tried to attack a Kenyan cabinet minister at a public meeting.

Police linked the attack to the MRC and said they had also arrested four others believed to be officials of the group. The MRC denied any involvement.

The MRC has unnerved investors in the famed tourist haven by threatening to disrupt March elections if its demands for secession are rejected by Kenyan authorities.

Analysts fear any unrest could turn the tourist hot spot - with its sandy beaches and pristine waters a jewel in the East African nation's economy - into a potential flashpoint, fuelling wider fears of ethnic violence and riots during the elections.

MRC's grievances stem from what they call decades of marginalisation of the coast region in key economic areas including education and jobs by the central government.

Mraja escaped an early morning raid by police at his home, and from his hiding place told reporters he feared he would be killed over his public demands for secession.

He later turned himself in accompanied by lawyers, and said other senior officials of the MRC group were also in hiding.

"They are tracking my phone calls, threatening my family and friends and have now arrested my wife, but released her shortly after," he told reporters earlier from his hiding place.

"If I was in the house at that time, you probably might never have heard of me again."

Police said they wanted Mraja for questioning and possible prosecution, but denied any intention to kill him.

The court freed Mraja on bond pending his trial.

Police say the group is also planning to disrupt national school examinations at the coast due to start next month.

Next year's vote will be the first since a war crimes court launched cases against four Kenyans, including two presidential hopefuls in the 2013 election.

The two are accused of masterminding tribal violence that killed more than 1,200 people following a disputed 2007 presidential poll.

Last month more than 100 people were killed as tribes fought over land further north along the coast, adding to fears of serious unrest ahead of the polls.

(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Jon Hemming)

((nairobi.newsroom@reuters.com)(Tel: +254 20 222 4717))

Keywords: KENYA COAST/