MOMBASA/KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) - Voter intimidation, expulsion threats and a rise in purchases of machetes point to violence at Kenya's March 4 national election, a coalition of 30 Kenyan civic groups said on Wednesday.
The government has promised harsh penalties for those caught inciting ethnic violence as it is anxious to avoid post-election bloodshed like that after the last vote in 2007 that led to indictments by the International Criminal Court.
More than 1,200 people were killed and more than 350,000 displaced from their homes when disputes over the results of the presidential vote five years ago broke out, triggering violence.
The civic groups, some of which assist victims of the 2007-08 post-election violence, said one of the biggest worries was the lack of prosecution of those responsible.
Machete-wielding youths burnt houses, raped women and killed members of rival communities in the last spate of bloodshed.
"An impunity gap exists and the chances that the same perpetrators will carry out the very same illegal acts as were witnessed in the last elections are very high," said a statement by 30 regional and national organisations that seek to promote social cohesion, human rights and democracy across Kenya.
They said reports of voter intimidation and threats of violence were coming from the East African country.
"Reports indicate that there has been massive acquisition of pangas (machetes) in some parts of the country, an indication that certain elements have armed themselves, either for defensive or offensive purposes," the statement said.
In the wake of the disputed 2007 election, Nairobi's slums, western Kenya and the Rift Valley agricultural region suffered the worst of the violence as ethnic tensions and historic grievances over land boiled over.
Violence was either financed or incited by Kenyan politicians, according to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has indicted presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, from the Kikuyu tribe, and his running mate William Ruto, a Kalenjin, of crimes against humanity. The two, who were rivals in the last election, both deny the charges.
Threatening leaflets aimed at getting minority communities to leave their homes and businesses and return to ancestral lands have been circulated in some parts of the country.
Leaflets scattered on Monday in one town in the south-western province of Nyanza told the Luhya community to clear out of the area and warned that their land would be repossessed if the presidential vote was won by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who comes from the Luo community that dominates Nyanza.
In Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city, residents last week reported seeing leaflets warning minority Kisii and Kalenjin people to leave the area.
"Some of our community members are living in fear while others have since relocated to Kisii town following the leaflets scare," said Fredrick Nyamweya, a member of the Kisii tribe living in Kisumu.
Even in the normally placid coastal areas around the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa, leaflets advised "outsiders" to go.
"These leaflets should not be taken lightly," said Peter Kimani, 28, a teacher at a privately owned school in Malindi, a popular Indian Ocean tourist resort.
"They are worrying and (that is) one of the reasons I am going back home until after the elections," added Kimani, a Kikuyu, whose family comes from central Kenya.
Kenyan police said they were investigating the various threats and two men had been charged in court over the distribution of menacing leaflets in the coastal region.
"These are merely cowards who want to instil fear in local residents and keep them away from voting, but we are alert and will catch up with them," said coast police chief Aggrey Adoli.
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)