BANJUL: Senegalese troops backed by other African forces were poised to move into The Gambia late Wednesday as President Yahya Jammeh’s army chief said his troops would not fight their entry into the country.
Jammeh was given a midnight deadline to stand down or face military action, but diplomats said he remained in The Gambia by 2330 GMT, as the Mauritanian president flew out of the country following hopes of a last-minute deal.
“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 was due to end at midnight (local and GMT) but he has steadfastly refused to leave office after losing elections last month, prompting west African states to ramp up pressure on him following weeks of failed diplomacy.
Nigeria sent troops and fighter jets to Senegal, whose own forces massed on the Gambian border.
“Our troops are on alert… The ultimatum takes effect at midnight,” Senegal army spokesman Colonel Abdou Ndiaye told AFP ahead of the deadline.
“If a political solution fails, we will engage” in operations in The Gambia, he said, confirming that Senegalese troops were heading to the border.
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.
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.
It was unclear as he flew out whether he had been successful in persuading Jammeh to go or had offered asylum, but Aziz also met opposition elder statesman Ousainou Darboe, according to Mauritanian sources.
Barrow is currently sheltering in Senegal. In New York on Wednesday, its government requested United Nations support for regional action against the long-time president.
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.
State of emergency
James Gomez, the inauguration’s head organiser, 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.
Under the Gambian constitution a state of emergency lasts up to 90 days if the national assembly confirms it — which the legislature did late Tuesday.
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.
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.
Tourists streamed out of the country, leaving the small airport near Banjul struggling to handle extra flights.
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”.
Holidaymakers were told that Thomas Cook flights would cease in a few days time, leaving them at risk of being stranded.
The Dutch travel firm TUI Nederland told AFP on Tuesday it would repatriate “about 800” clients.
The panic caused by the state of emergency could prove financially devastating — experts say up to 20 percent of the economy comes from 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.