MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Police shot dead three suspected supporters of the Somali militant group al Shabaab on Wednesday during a raid in Kenya's turbulent coastal region, in which a police officer also died.
Police arrested a number of suspects and confiscated grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition at a house in the Likoni area, Coast province police chief Aggrey Adoli said.
Kenya has suffered a series of grenade and gun attacks since it sent troops into Somalia a year ago in pursuit of the insurgents it blames for kidnapping security personnel and Western tourists from its territory.
A local group campaigning for independence for the Coast region has added to tension ahead of a presidential and parliamentary election due in March, the first since a disputed 2007 poll that saw violence nationwide in which more than 1,200 people were killed.
Adoli said the suspected al Shabaab supporters threw two grenades and opened fire when an elite Nairobi police unit burst into their building, seriously wounding four officers. One later died of his wounds in hospital.
"The operation is still on. We have arrested several suspects but it's still too early to say how many until we are through," Adoli told Reuters by phone.
Mwagomba Juma, a youth leader who lives in the area, said heavy gunfire, punctuated by at least two blasts, began in the early hours of the morning.
Dozens of police in bullet-proof vests and armed with automatic rifles combed the neighborhood as nervous residents peered through their windows, witnesses said.
The instability has kept many foreign tourists away. The number of visitors were down by a fifth in the first eight months of this year, a heavy blow to the tourism sector which is a main driver of east Africa's biggest economy.
In Nairobi, Kenyan police arrested Mohammed Dor, a legislator and prominent Muslim cleric from the coastal region, after he said he had no objection to funding the separatist Muslim Mombasa Republican Council if they approached him.
"He will be charged in a Kenyan court of law on Thursday for incitement to violence," Ireri Kamwende, Nairobi's provincial criminal investigation officer said.
Kenyan authorities have intensified a crackdown on the MRC movement which is seeking independence for the coastal region, a tourism and trade hub. The MRC says the region has suffered decades of social and economic marginalization.
On Monday, MRC leader Omar Mwamnuadzi and 36 supporters were arrested. Kenya's government said last week it had information that the MRC intended to sow chaos during national school exams that began on Monday.
Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Yara bayoumy and Janet Lawrence