Gambia breaks off diplomatic ties with Taiwan after 18 years

BANJUL, Gambia (AFP) - Gambia said on Thursday it had broken off diplomatic relations with Taiwan after 18 years, citing the "national interest".

Gambia was one of only a handful of African countries to retain ties with Taiwan at a time when China is pumping billions of dollars into the continent.

President Yahya Jammeh said diplomatic ties, established in July 1995, would end immediately.

"This decision has been taken in our strategic national interest," said a statement issued by his office.

"We are proud that we have been a very strong and reliable partner of the Republic of China for the past 18 years, the results of which are there for every Taiwanese to see.

"Despite the end of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, we will still remain friends with the people of Taiwan."

Beijing regards Taiwan, which split from mainland China in 1949 at the end of a civil war, as part of its territory.

It has in recent years convinced several countries that had sided with Taiwan in 1949 to switch their support.

However, it was not immediately clear whether Gambia's move was linked to the development of relations with China, which has a growing influence in Africa.

Initially, a majority of African states recognised the Taipei government, which responded with investment.

But their number has steadily eroded. Gambia's decision means that Swaziland, Sao Tome and Principe and Burkina Faso are the only African countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan has poured millions of dollars into the health, education, agriculture and infrastructure sectors of resource-poor Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland.

It funded the US$22 million (S$27 million) construction of a 42 kilometre (26 mile) road linking the western part of the country to the capital Banjul.

In 2010 President Jammeh said Taiwan was "one of the best friends that the Gambia has ever had", pledging to "give them all the necessary support to make sure that they gain their rightful position in this world".

Although China still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification, relations have warmed since Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party came to power in Taipei in 2008 on a platform of strengthening trade and tourism links.