Gambia's Jammeh offered last chance for peaceful exit before troops advance | Reuters

 Gambias Jammeh offered last chance for peaceful exit before troops advance
| Reuters

By Tim Cocks

BANJUL West African leaders on Friday extended a deadline for Gambia's longtime leader Yahya Jammeh to leave office or face action by a regional military force to install President Adama Barrow, the winner of an election in December.Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Guinean President Alpha Conde flew to the capital Banjul on Friday to try to persuade Jammeh to cede power peacefully.Troops spearheaded by Senegal and Nigeria had crossed into Gambia on Thursday at the request of Barrow, who was sworn in on Thursday at Gambia's embassy in Dakar as Jammeh refused to step down. But no further military action would take place until negotiations are complete, sources in the regional organisation ECOWAS said.Jammeh wants an extension of the midday deadline until 4 p.m. (1600 GMT), according to Gambian government sources. It was not clear what he planned to do, though diplomats said his departure looked increasingly possible."It's out of the question that he stays in place," said Marcel de Souza, head of an ECOWAS commission.Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup, initially conceded defeat to Barrow following a Dec. 1 election before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed and demanding a new ballot.Diplomats said regional leaders had been close to a deal before but talks broke down over where Jammeh goes. While Barrow's aides say Jammeh can remain in the country on his Kanilai estate, Senegal insists he leave Gambia, diplomats said.His estate is heavily fortified, witnesses say, and just 1 km from Senegal's border."There is a real possibility this could work. I don't think he is going the (Saddam) Hussein route," said a regional diplomat, referring to the Iraqi leader who was arrested in 2003 following an invasion, tried and hanged.

One of Africa's smallest countries, Gambia is of little strategic significance. But if a peaceful transition of power fails, it would be a setback for the advance of democracy in Africa, a continent where autocrats have often held sway since the end of Western colonial rule. Jammeh, who once vowed to rule Gambia "for a billion years", earned a reputation for torturing and killing perceived opponents. He pulled Gambia out of the Commonwealth in 2013 and declared the country an Islamic state in 2015.REFUGEES FLEE TO SENEGAL
Gambia's only land border is with Senegal and the regional coalition, which ECOWAS says involves 7,000 troops, which is backed by tanks and warplanes, entered from the southeast, southwest and north.

U.N. officials including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, U.N. Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were already in Banjul.Streets in the capital were mostly deserted on Friday and shops, restaurants and petrol stations were shut.The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said about 45,000 people, mainly children, have fled to Senegal since Jan. 1. It cited figures from the Senegalese government. Residents near the border said army defectors were among them and one resident said he saw four Gambian military vehicles crossing into Senegal overnight.Thousands of tourists have also left the country. Gambia, with its Atlantic beaches, is a popular holiday destination for Europeans and tourism is a mainstay of an economy otherwise reliant on peanut production and remittances from overseas.

Barrow has been recognised as Gambia's new president by world powers and Jammeh is increasingly isolated at home as ministers abandoned his camp.Hundreds of people celebrated Barrow's swearing in and the ECOWAS advance into Gambia.Jammeh on Thursday dissolved the government - half of whose members have resigned - and pledged to name a new one.Support for him remained strong in some quarters, reflecting his years of power in the country of 1.8 million people."Why should the other countries interfere. Why should they force him to leave?" said Momodou Badji, 78, in Banjul's Kanifing neighbourhood.On Thursday night, army chief General Ousman Badjie, who had stood by Jammeh, was seen smiling on the streets, wading through a mass of jubilant Banjul residents shouting and dancing. (Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Diadie Ba in Dakar and Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott; Editing by Angus MacSwan; Writing by David Lewis and Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2017 22:00:27 IST