The leaders of Guinea and Mauritania arrived in Gambia’s capital Friday in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to get defeated President Yahya Jammeh to cede power, while a regional military force was awaiting orders to act.
The head of the regional force has said the troops will force Jammeh out if he doesn’t step aside. A noon deadline set by the regional body passed as the Guinean and Mauritanian leaders arrived for talks.
On Thursday, Adama Barrow was inaugurated as Gambia’s new president and the U.N. Security Council voted to approve the regional military intervention.
The West African regional force, including tanks, moved into Gambia Thursday evening and has met no resistance, said Marcel Alain de Souza, chairman of the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS. At least 20 military vehicles were seen poised at the border town of Karang on Friday morning.
The regional force, including troops from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and Mali, moved in after Barrow’s inauguration and the unanimous Security Council vote.
Barrow, who won Gambia’s presidential election in December, was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in neighboring Senegal, where he is for his safety.
Jammeh on Friday remained in the official residence, State House, in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. Increasingly isolated, he dissolved his Cabinet on Thursday, said Malick Jones, the director of national television. Several ministers had already resigned in recent days, in some cases fleeing the country.
Guinean President Alpha Conde arrived in Banjul with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Mauritania has been mentioned as a possible country where Jammeh could go into exile.
Conde will offer Jammeh the chance to step down peacefully, said de Souza.
Jammeh “has the choice of going with President Alpha Conde,” said de Souza. If that fails, “we will bring him by force or by will. Our troops will advance on Banjul. Until the last minute, we still think there is a solution resulting from a dialogue.”
Jammeh started negotiations with ECOWAS on Thursday and agreed to step down but demanded an amnesty for any crimes that he may have committed during his 22 years in power and that he be permitted to stay in Gambia, at his home village of Kanilai, said de Souza.
Those demands are not acceptable to ECOWAS, said de Souza.
Jammeh’s continued presence in Gambia would “create disturbances to public order and terrorist movements,” said de Souza. ECOWAS wants Barrow to take power in Gambia without any security threats, said de Souza.
Barrow, in his inaugural speech, which took place under heavy security, called on Jammeh to respect the will of the people and step aside. He also called on Gambia’s armed forces to remain in their barracks.
The United States supports diplomatically the regional force’s intervention and is in touch with officials in Senegal, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters. He said he didn’t have tactical information but “obviously, it’s very, very tense.”
It is not certain that Gambia’s army will fight to keep Jammeh in power. A soldier with close knowledge of the situation said three barracks had indicated they would support Barrow. The soldier spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Senegalese radio station RFM reported that 30 Gambian soldiers had crossed into Senegal to fight alongside the regional forces.
“I think the Gambian military would know it’s outnumbered,” said Maggie Dwyer, an expert on West African militaries at the University of Edinburgh. “Gambia’s military has very little combat experience. This would be a very difficult situation for them.” She estimated the military’s size at 2,400 at most, plus paramilitary forces of less than 1,000.
“My guess is, a very small number would actually put their life on the line for Jammeh,” though some might stand by him in the hope of getting any deal he might get to avoid prosecution, Dwyer said.
She pointed to a video posted online that appeared to show Gambia’s army chief of staff Ousman Badgie celebrating Barrow inauguration. “A pretty clear indication of his stance,” she said.
Barrow, as the commander in chief, has requested the support of country’s military chiefs, said Halifa Sallah, spokesman for the coalition supporting Barrow. “People are confident that change will be affected and there will be a peaceful resolution.”
In Banjul, soldiers at checkpoints were smiling and appeared relaxed, one saying to visitors, “Welcome to the smiling coast.”
African nations have begun stepping away from Jammeh, with the African Union saying the continental body no longer recognizes Jammeh.
About 45,000 people have fled Gambia to Senegal, fearing an outbreak of violence, according to the Senegalese government and the U.N. refugee agency. About 75 percent of those refugees are children accompanied by women, the U.N. said.
It is estimated that a few thousand international tourists are still in Gambia, and efforts continued to evacuate them from the country.