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UPDATED: Gambia's Jammeh offered last chance for peaceful exit before troops advance

Reuters , Friday 20 Jan 2017
Gambia unrest
A convoy of Senegal soldiers on root towards the Gambia boarder with Senegal near Karang, Senegal, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017 (Photo: AP)
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West African leaders said it was no longer possible for Gambia's veteran leader Yahya Jammeh to stay in power as regional military forces stood ready to advance on the capital Banjul on Friday.

Three presidents were due to visit Banjul to give Jammeh a last chance to quit peacefully and cede office to newly-elected President Adama Barrow.

"It's out of the question that he stays in place," said Marcel de Souza, head of a commission from the regional grouping ECOWAS.

West African troops spearheaded by Senegal and Nigeria 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.

Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup and whose mandate ended overnight, initially conceded defeat to Barrow following a Dec. 1 election before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed.

The West African armies have given Jammeh until midday on Friday to quit before they continue their advance across the tiny slither of a country to Banjul.

Gambia's only land border is with Senegal and the regional coalition, which ECOWAS says involves 7,000 troops, has entered from the southeast, southwest and north.

De Souza said Guinea's President Alpha Conde would travel to Banjul with the leaders of Mauritania and Liberia on Friday to try to convince Jammeh to travel to Guinea before choosing a country of exile.

REFUGEES FLEE TO SENEGAL

In a sign of the apparent lack of resistance to the regional coalition, just two soldiers guarded the state television building in Banjul, a witness said. Streets 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.

"The next few days will be critical and more people may leave the country if the current situation is not resolved peacefully soon," UNHCR said in a statement.

Thousands of foreign tourists have also departed the country. Gambia, with its Atlantic beaches, is a popular holiday destination for Europeans and tourism is a mainstay of the economy.

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, who once vowed to rule for "a billion years", has earned a reputation for rights abuses and stifling dissent during his long rule.

His intentions remain unclear but on Thursday he dissolved the government - a 19-member Cabinet, half of whose members had already resigned - and pledged to name a new one "in due course".

Support for him remained strong in some quarters, reflecting his many years of power in the country of 1.8 million people.

"We just want them to settle this so we can have peace," said Momodou Badji, 78, in Banjul's Kanifing neighbourhood.

Badji said he supported Jammeh and was head of the council of elders for Jammeh's party in the area.

"Why should the other countries interfere. Why should they force him to leave?" he told Reuters.

On Thursday night, army chief General Ousman Badjie, who had publicly stood by Jammeh, was seen smiling on the streets, wading through a mass of jubilant Banjul residents shouting and dancing.

Barrow asked for foreign help to assume office immediately after he was sworn in on Thursday, a plan that was backed by the U.N. Security Council in New York.

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