Senegalese troops enter Gambia in support of new president
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Senegalese troops entered neigbouring Gambia on Thursday, an army spokesman said, as part of a regional effort to support its new President Adama Barrow in a showdown with longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh, who has refused to step down.
"We have entered Gambia," Colonel Abdou Ndiaye wrote in a text message to Reuters, shortly after Barrow, who won election in December, was sworn in as Gambia's new president in Senegal.
The military intervention, dubbed Operation Restore Democracy, is being backed by West Africa's regional bloc, ECOWAS, and involves "significant" land, air and sea resources, according to a Senegalese army statement.
"This action aims to re-establish constitutional legality in Gambia and allow the new elected president to take office," it said, adding that the operation was being carried out under an ECOWAS mandate.
Nigeria, which pre-positioned war planes and helicopters in Senegal's capital Dakar, is also part of the operation, but it was not immediately clear if it too had crossed the border.
Ghana has also pledged troops.
However, officials said late Thursday that the troops' advance had been temporarily halted to allow for a final attempt at mediation, but would resume again at noon Friday should Jammeh still refuse to cede power.
West African leaders were due to head to Gambia Friday to take part in those mediation efforts, Gambia state TV reported, with the delegation to include the presidents of Liberia, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau as well as a UN representative.
Barrow was inaugurated Thursday in a hastily arranged ceremony at Gambia's embassy in Senegal. The small embassy room held about 40 people, including Senegal's prime minister and the head of Gambia's electoral commission.
A jumbo TV screen broadcast the swearing in ceremony to several hundred watching outside the embassy, as Barrow called for international report not just from ECOWAS but also the African Union and the United Nations.
"This is a day no Gambian will ever forget," said Barrow, dressed in a flowing white robe.
After Barrow took the oath of office, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution expressing "full support" to Gambia's new president and calling on Jammeh to step down, condemning his attempts to usurp power.
A last-minute revision to the resolution backed efforts by ECOWAS to ensure that Barrow's election victory on Dec. 1 is respected, using "political means first".
Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were private, said an initial reference to ECOWAS' use of "all necessary measures" was dropped and the political reference was added because some members objected to backing military action.
Jammeh's support 'evaporating'
FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Robert Parsons said it appeared that Jammeh’s support was “evaporating every day with little left but the security apparatus”.
“It doesn’t appear like Jammeh is going to back down on this and having gone so far it doesn’t seem likely that the ECOWAS force made up from five countries in west Africa is going to back down either. There’s very little sign that the Gambian people would resist in any way either.”
According to Parsons, while there might be some Jammeh loyalists within the elite force of the Gambian National Guard who could put up some resistance, the signs were that the ECOWAS force would go ahead.
“The ECOWAS force is going to go ahead unless Jammeh goes and the signs are he’s not going to go”, he said.
Jammeh was at his official residence, State House, in Gambia's capital and intended to stay there, said an official close to the administration who was not authorised to speak to reporters. If the regional force is going to arrest Jammeh, it will have to be there, he said.
Many of Jammeh's loyalists at State House will resist, the official added. But Gambia's army, estimated at well below 5,000 troops, is divided over its loyalties to Jammeh, and those not sympathetic to him will not leave until they are invited by the new government, the official said.
'We are behind Barrow'
Barrow won the December election, defeating Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994. Jammeh initially conceded defeat but then changed his mind, saying the election was marred by irregularities.
Jammeh has resisted strong international pressure for him to step down. His mandate expired at midnight.
African nations began stepping away from Jammeh, with Botswana announcing it no longer recognized him as Gambia's president. His refusal to hand over power "undermines the ongoing efforts to consolidate democracy and good governance" in Gambia and Africa in general, it said.
The African Union earlier announced that the continental body would no longer recognise Jammeh once his mandate expired.
The US embassy in Dakar issued a warning to embassy personnel to stay at least 50 miles (80 kilometres) from the Senegal-Gambia border and to avoid military bases until at least Jan. 26.
The streets of Gambia's capital Banjul were quiet Thursday, with few cars and scattered groups of men gathered on roadsides chatting under trees. Shops were closed and gasoline petrol was in short supply. Few tourists remained in the resorts.
Jammeh declared a state of emergency this week, but there were no signs of military activity. Few checkpoints were seen.
Thousands of Gambians have fled the country, including some former cabinet members who resigned in recent days. Hundreds of foreign tourists, including many from Britain and the Netherlands, were evacuated on special charter flights.
AFP reported that celebrations broke out on Gambian streets after Barrow's inauguration.
"We are behind Barrow. We are not scared," said taxi driver Boto Sane. "When we hear that everyone can go out (to celebrate safely), that he has returned, we will. For now we are calm."
Another resident said the regional forces would be welcomed if it leads to peace.
"We like that they are coming," said taxi driver Tata Saidy. "We are waiting to hear that now, at this moment, the president is Barrow."
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS, AFP)