West African forces poised for Gambian intervention

By Tim Cocks

BANJUL (Reuters) – West African troops were poised to intervene in Gambia on Thursday after President Yahya Jammeh’s mandate expired and overnight talks to convince him to stand down failed.

Senegal has deployed hundreds of soldiers to its shared border with Gambia and Nigeria has pre-positioned war planes and helicopters after regional bloc ECOWAS said it would remove Jammeh if he did not hand over power to challenger Adama Barrow, who won an election in early December.

Gambia’s capital, Banjul, was quiet overnight and on Thursday morning as military helicopters flew overhead and police trucks patrolled largely empty streets.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz led last ditch talks with Jammeh in Banjul on Wednesday before meeting Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Barrow in Dakar overnight.

It was unclear what Jammeh’s next move would be. The veteran leader faces almost total diplomatic isolation and a government that has all but collapsed from defections. Both ECOWAS and the African Union have said they will recognise Barrow as president from Thursday.

“It is absurd,” Barrow’s spokesman Halifa Sallah said in a press conference on Wednesday. “The clear position is that the president-elect should assume office on the 19th”.

Plans to swear Barrow in at the national stadium have been dropped but he will take the oath of office at an undisclosed location, Sallah said.

Two diplomats said they expected Barrow to be sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Senegal.

TROOPS ON STANDBY

Senegal’s army said on Wednesday that it would be ready to cross into its smaller neighbour, which it surrounds, at any point after midnight and Nigeria has also deployed aircraft to Dakar and a navy ship to the region.

A spokesman for Nigeria’s president told the BBC that troops would only intervene on the request of Barrow once he had been sworn in.

“What the Senegalese said about the midnight deadline was to put pressure on Jammeh. It was a show of muscle,” a diplomat in the region told Reuters.

The United Nations said at least 26,000 people fearing unrest have fled to Senegal and tour operators have sent charter jets to fly hundreds of European holiday makers out of the country.

Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 coup and later vowed to rule for “a billion years”, has so far ignored calls by world powers and regional leaders to step aside and avert a conflict.

He says the electoral commission was under the influence of “foreign forces,” and has challenged the result in a court – which currently has no judges to preside over it.

Gambians celebrated in the streets when Jammeh conceded electoral defeat to Barrow, a real estate developer who once worked as a security guard at an Argos store in London. But a week later, the president changed his mind.

It was the latest in a long line of eccentricities from a leader who had said only Allah can remove him from office, claimed to have a herbal cure for AIDS that only works on Thursdays and threatened to slit the throats of homosexuals.

 (Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Diadie Ba in Dakar; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Richard Lough)