A state of emergency has been declared in Gambia and its beaches are being emptied of European holidaymakers, as neighbouring armies mass on the tiny West African country’s borders.
British tour operator Thomas Cook has started removing nearly 1000 tourists after President Yahya Jammeh declared the state of emergency on his final day in office, increasing the chances of civil unrest.
In a statement on its website on Wednesday, Thomas Cook said it had activated its contingency plans and was laying on extra flights to take 985 package tour customers from the tiny West African nation.
It was also trying to contact a further 2500 “flight only” tourists in Gambia to arrange for their departure on the earliest available flight.
The British government has changed its advice on travel to the Gambia to advise against all but essential travel.
The Australian government’s Smartraveller website advices tourists to exercise a high degree of caution in Gambia, saying there may be “incidents of unrest” and that all political gatherings should be avoided.
Jammeh, who seized power in a coup 22 years ago, lost a December election to Adama Barrow, but has refused to recognise the result.
Gambia’s National Assembly has now voted to allow Jammeh to stay in office for another three months, a decision likely to raise tensions even further. Jammeh says he won’t step down until a court hears his election challenge.
Jammeh is one of Africa’s most capricious and ruthless autocrats who has resorted to torturing or killing perceived opponents, according to human rights groups.
Despite the reputation of its leader, Gambia’s Atlantic ocean beaches are popular with European holidaymakers seeking winter sun, sea and sand.
A senior Nigerian military source said this week the ECOWAS regional bloc was getting ready to remove Jammeh by force if he refused to hand over to Barrow by a January 19 deadline determined by the constitution.
Tens of thousands of residents have fled, as troops from Nigeria and neighbouring Senegal prepare to invade the country and use force to install Mr Barrow as the rightful president.
The Nigerian government last week authorised generals to mobilise an 800-strong battalion to spearhead the mission and on Wednesday confirmed that a warship was heading toward Gambia for “training” as regional countries prepared to intervene.
Columns of Senegalese troops also moved to the Gambian border on Wednesday.
Barrow, who once worked as a security guard at a North London shop, is in Senegal – fuelling speculation he might be sworn in as president at the Gambian embassy in Dakar.
He fled amid fears he could be thrown in jail or even killed if he stayed in Gambia ahead of taking charge.
Gambia is the smallest nation in mainland Africa, with a population of just 1.9 million people – including an army of just 900 soldiers.
It follows the shape of the Gambia river and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal.
The former British colony gained independence from Britain in 1965 and has had just two leaders since.
– with agencies