African forces were poised to enter The Gambia Thursday after President Yahya Jammeh refused to leave office, ignoring a midnight deadline to stand down or face military action.
Jammeh’s army chief said his troops would not fight their entry into the country, as the Mauritanian president flew out of The Gambia following hopes of a last-minute deal to convince Jammeh to hand over power.
“We are not going to involve ourselves militarily. This is a political dispute,” Chief of Defence Staff Ousman Badjie said after eating dinner in a tourist district close to the capital Banjul, eyewitnesses told AFP.
“I am not going to involve my soldiers in a stupid fight. I love my men,” he added. “If they (Senegalese) come in, we are here like this,” Badjie said, making a hands up or surrender gesture.
Jammeh’s mandate ended at midnight (local and GMT) but he has steadfastly refused to leave office after losing elections last month to Adama Barrow, prompting west African states to ramp up pressure on the president following weeks of failed diplomacy.
Nigeria sent troops and fighter jets to Senegal, whose own forces massed on the Gambian border.
Witnesses said the situation was calm in Banjul overnight, although troops had been deployed in the city.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet Thursday to adopt a statement on West Africa that will reaffirm the demand for Jammeh to hand over power, diplomats said.
“If a political solution fails, we will engage” in operations in The Gambia, Senegal army spokesman Colonel Abdou Ndiaye told AFP ahead of the deadline.
Unsuccessful attempts by the 15-nation Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) led Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to fly into Banjul at the 11th hour for a final round of talks.
Following the discussions he was hopeful of reaching a peaceful solution, he was quoted as saying by Gambian state broadcaster GRTS.
Mauritania is not part of ECOWAS and diplomats have previously reached out to the conservative desert nation in hopes of brokering an asylum deal with Jammeh.
Shortly before midnight Aziz’s plane landed in Dakar, where he was met by Barrow — who is currently sheltering there — and Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the private Senegalese radio station RFM reported.
Senegal has also requested UN backing for regional action against the long-time president. However, a vote on the draft resolution has yet to be scheduled, according to diplomats.
– State of emergency –
Barrow and his team maintain his inauguration will go ahead on Thursday on Gambian soil, and his spokesman said late Wednesday “we do not feel any threat” from Senegalese troops on the ground.
However, the inauguration’s head organiser James Gomez said plans for the transfer of power in a huge stadium outside the capital were now cancelled.
The 51-year-old Gambian leader announced a state of emergency on Tuesday, saying it was necessary because of interference from foreign powers in the country’s December 1 election, but the declaration has had little effect on attempts to remove him.
The country’s vice-president Isatou Njie-Saidy resigned Wednesday, family sources said, along with the environment and higher education ministers, in the latest of a string of cabinet members deserting Jammeh’s government.
– Tourists flee –
As tensions rose, Britain and the Netherlands issued travel advisory warnings, with around 1,000 British tourists expected to leave on special flights on Wednesday alone, leaving the small airport near Banjul struggling to cope.
Brian and Yvonne Souch, from Witney in southern England, told AFP they were unaware of the potential risk of flying to the country 10 days ago and felt tour company Thomas Cook should have kept them better informed.
“We didn’t know anything until we came down for breakfast,” Souch said, sitting in shorts and sleeveless T-shirt in the lobby of a hotel in the Kololi tourist strip as he awaited a bus to the airport.
Thomas Cook said additional flights into Banjul airport would bring home 1,000 package holidaymakers, followed by up 2,500 more at the “earliest possible flight availability”.
But holidaymakers were told that Thomas Cook flights would cease in a few days time, leaving them at risk of being stranded.
The panic caused by the state of emergency could prove financially devastating — experts say up to 20 percent of the economy relies on tourism.
Gambians were taking precautions and stocking up on food and supplies in the few shops that remained open in districts near the capital, with roads quiet and street hawkers notably absent.
A source told AFP that patients at Banjul’s Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, which sits opposite Jammeh’s seat of power, were removed for security reasons. Only those in intensive care remained.