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Gambia Prepares For Showdown As Foreign Troops Threaten Intervention

A woman looks down an empty street Wednesday in Banjul, Gambia, hours before the end of longtime leader Yahya Jammeh's mandate.
A woman looks down an empty street Wednesday in Banjul, Gambia, hours before the end of longtime leader Yahya Jammeh's mandate.

In a few hours, longtime Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh's presidential term will expire. But he is clinging to power as troops from regional powers reportedly amass at the border.

International and regional powers are demanding that Jammeh step down and make way for his rival, businessman Adama Barrow, who won last month' s presidential election.

The African Union has stated that it will stop recognizing Jammeh as president after his term expires at midnight local time. (Gambia is five hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast.)

And ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, appears to be preparing to enforce the election result by force. The Nigerian air force said in a statement that it has moved "a contingent of 200 men and air assets" to Senegal's capital, Dakar, "from where it is expected to operate into Gambia."

Senegalese forces also are poised to cross the border, army spokesman Col. Abdou Ndiaye tells Reuters. "We are ready and are awaiting the deadline at midnight. If no political solution is found, we will step in," Ndiaye said, according to the wire service.

ECOWAS had earlier threatened military action if Jammeh refused to leave and is seeking "the U.N. Security Council's endorsement of its 'all necessary measures' to help remove Jammeh from power," The Associated Press reported. Gambia, "a country of 1.9 million people, is estimated to have just 900 troops," according to the wire service.

Jammeh, who has been president since he led a coup 22 years ago, initially accepted the result of the Dec. 1 election — but dramatically changed his mind a week later, saying that the results were void because of voting "irregularities." And earlier this week, he issued a 90-day state of emergency.

Parliament also extended his term for another three months earlier today, according to news reports, though that hasn't appeared to ease the tension heading into tomorrow's deadline.

Meanwhile, it appears Barrow is preparing to be sworn in as president. It's unclear where that ceremony would take place, as Barrow is in Senegal for his own protection.

"Our future starts tomorrow," Barrow said in a tweet.

Since Jammeh lost the election, "Gambian authorities have arbitrarily arrested opposition sympathizers and closed four independent radio stations," according to Amnesty International. The U.N.'s refugee agency says thousands of Gambians fearing violence have fled across the border to Senegal.

Tourists are also evacuating the country and a correspondent with The Guardian is posting pictures of crowded halls in the capital's airport, saying it is "absolute chaos."

Tour operator Thomas Cook said it is operating extra flights in order to "get our UK customers home from the Gambia as quickly as possible." The company adds that it hopes to transport some 3,500 people on 16 flights by Friday.

The smallest country on the African continent is a popular destination for tourists seeking sandy beaches.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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