'Dozens arrested' after failed Gambia coup

A file photo taken Nov 22, 2011 shows Gambian President Yahya Jammeh greeting supporters during a rally in Gambia. Dozens of military personnel and civilians have been arrested in The Gambia and a cache of explosives and weapons have been found
A file photo taken Nov 22, 2011 shows Gambian President Yahya Jammeh greeting supporters during a rally in Gambia. Dozens of military personnel and civilians have been arrested in The Gambia and a cache of explosives and weapons have been found following a failed coup, a source said on Thursday. -- PHOTO: AFP

BISSAU (AFP) - Several dozen military personnel and civilians were arrested, and a large cache of weapons and explosives were found following a reported coup attempt in The Gambia, an intelligence source said Thursday.

The suspects have been interrogated and were being held in “four villas” in or near the tiny west African nation’s capital Banjul, said a source close to Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

Gambia’s strongman leader, Mr Yahya Jammeh, who was visiting Dubai at the time of the attack, blamed unidentified foreign dissidents and “terrorists” for the assault Tuesday on his presidential palace, and denied it was an attempt to unseat him.

“It is an attack by dissidents based in the US, Germany and UK,” Mr Jammeh said in a televised address Wednesday.

“This was not a coup. This was an attack by a terrorist group backed by some powers that I would not name.”

Mr Jammeh insisted that the armed forces “are very loyal” and that only former soldiers, including a senior commander, had taken part in the attack on his palace.

“No force can take this place and nobody can destabilise this country,” he said.

“Anybody who plans to attack this country, be ready, because you are going to die.”

A group of heavily armed men led by an army deserter attacked the presidential palace before dawn, but were repelled by forces loyal to Jammeh, who has ruled for 20 years since he seized power in a 1994 coup that ousted Gambia’s founding leader Sir Dawda Jawara.

Investigators have allegedly seized the plan laying out the attack, in which the three suspects, including the alleged ringleader were killed, according to a military officer.

One of the alleged conspirators also led authorities to “a large quantity of very sophisticated automatic weapons and explosives,” in a shipping container disguised as second-hand clothing at Banjul’s port, the source close to the NIA said.

Four officers suspected of participating in the attempt had taken refuge in the neighbouring west African nation of Guinea-Bissau, a military source told AFP.

‘FAILURE IS UNFORGIVABLE'

Mr Jammeh returned home to his palace overnight on Wednesday from Dubai, where he had been on a private visit.

He claims to have foiled a succession of coup plots and has come under fire for serious human rights abuses, including repression of the media and the disappearance of rivals.

The United States said in response to the attack on the palace: “We strongly condemn any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means.”

Neighbouring Senegal “strongly” condemned the apparent coup attempt, which it said was undertaken “by a group of insurgents”.

UN chief Ban Ki Moon called for a probe of the failed takeover and also urged the government and security forces in Banjul to “act in full respect of human rights.”

A Dakar-based researcher, Mr Gilles Yabi, warned Wednesday of a “major risk of repression extending beyond the military figures involved in the coup attempt”.

“There are fears the regime could take advantage of the situation by blaming people who had nothing to do with it.”

Gambia is a popular winter sun destination for European holidaymakers, especially from Britain.