Veteran Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh was Friday facing a midday deadline to quit power, after thousands of regional troops entered the country to pile pressure on him to hand power to the winner of last month’s presidential election.
Soldiers from Senegal and four other west African countries crossed the border on Thursday to bolster new President Adama Barrow, who was sworn in at The Gambia’s embassy in Dakar.
Jammeh has rejected Barrow’s election win, despite significant pressure from regional powers and the UN, sparking a major crisis and sending tourists — vital for the tiny country’s economy — fleeing.
The military operation was suspended to allow a final diplomatic push to convince Jammeh, who has ruled the former British colony since seizing power in a 1994 coup, to leave the country.
“We have suspended operations and given him an ultimatum,” said Marcel Alain de Souza, head of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
“If by midday, he doesn’t agree to leave The Gambia… we really will intervene militarily,” he added.
Final talks will be led by Guinean President Alpha Conde in the Gambian capital Banjul on Friday morning, he said.
– ‘Last chance saloon’ –
Conde will first travel to Mauritania where he will meet President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the previous round of negotiations with Jammeh on Wednesday.
A diplomat in Banjul told AFP: “It’s last chance saloon for Jammeh.”
De Souza said a total of 7,000 troops would be mobilised by Senegal and four other nations.
In a further sign of Jammeh’s weakening position, The Gambia’s army chief Ousman Badjie was spotted among crowds celebrating after Barrow was inaugurated.
Badjie said he would not order his men to fight the African troops poised to intervene.
Washington earlier praised the West African intervention, while the UN Security Council unanimously backed ECOWAS efforts to force Jammeh to quit, without formally authorising military action.
“We understand that the purpose is to help stabilise a tense situation and to try to observe the will of the people in The Gambia,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
– ‘Victory of Gambian nation’ –
Dressed all in white, 51-year-old Barrow waved to a crowd of thousands of jubilant Gambians during his inauguration, which officially ended Jammeh’s 22-year rule.
“This is a victory of the Gambian nation. Our flag will now fly high among those of the most-democratic nations of the world,” he said, demanding loyalty from his armed forces.
On the ground, troops including “land, air and sea” forces crossed into The Gambia, a Senegalese army officer told AFP, indicating that Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Mali were also involved.