BANJUL, GAMBIA (AFP) - Veteran Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh was Friday (Jan 20) facing a midday deadline to quit power, after thousands of regional troops entered the country to pile pressure on him to hand power to the winner of last month's presidential election.
Soldiers from Senegal and four other west African countries crossed the border on Thursday to bolster new President Adama Barrow, who was sworn in at The Gambia's embassy in Dakar.
Jammeh has rejected Barrow's election win, despite significant pressure from regional powers and the UN, sparking a major crisis and sending tourists - vital for the tiny country's economy - fleeing.
More than 45,000 people have fled Gambia this month, the UN said Friday.
“Around 45,000 people are now reported to have arrived in Senegal from The Gambia,” the UN refugee agency said, adding that another “800 people have crossed into Guinea-Bissau.”
The military operation was suspended to allow a final diplomatic push to convince Jammeh, who has ruled the former British colony since seizing power in a 1994 coup, to leave the country.
"We have suspended operations and given him an ultimatum," said Marcel Alain de Souza, head of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
"If by midday, he doesn't agree to leave The Gambia... we really will intervene militarily," he added.
Final talks will be led by Guinean President Alpha Conde in the Gambian capital Banjul on Friday morning, he said.
Conde will first travel to Mauritania where he will meet President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the previous round of negotiations with Jammeh on Wednesday.
A diplomat in Banjul told AFP: "It's last chance saloon for Jammeh."
De Souza said a total of 7,000 troops would be mobilised by Senegal and four other nations.
In a further sign of Jammeh's weakening position, The Gambia's army chief Ousman Badjie was spotted among crowds celebrating after Barrow was inaugurated.
Badjie said he would not order his men to fight the African troops poised to intervene.
Washington earlier praised the West African intervention, while the UN Security Council unanimously backed ECOWAS efforts to force Jammeh to quit, without formally authorising military action.
"We understand that the purpose is to help stabilise a tense situation and to try to observe the will of the people in The Gambia," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Dressed all in white, 51-year-old Barrow waved to a crowd of thousands of jubilant Gambians during his inauguration, which officially ended Jammeh's 22-year rule.
"This is a victory of the Gambian nation. Our flag will now fly high among those of the most-democratic nations of the world," he said, demanding loyalty from his armed forces.
On the ground, troops including "land, air and sea" forces crossed into The Gambia, a Senegalese army officer told AFP, indicating that Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Mali were also involved.
A Senegalese army spokesman confirmed his country's troops had crossed the border, after Nigerian jets earlier flew over The Gambia to help force out Jammeh, whose mandate expired at midnight Wednesday.
Barrow's victory in the Dec 1 election came as a surprise and initially Jammeh conceded defeat, before performing a U-turn and challenging the result in the courts.
On Thursday night, calls of congratulations flooded in for the new president, including from the UN secretary general and Britain.
Barrow, a real-estate agent turned politician, had flown into Senegal on January 15 to seek shelter after weeks of rising tension over Jammeh's stance.
Even Jammeh's former lawyer Edward Gomez, who was arguing cases on the president's behalf as late as Monday, pleaded with him to step down Thursday after himself fleeing to Senegal.
"My humble prayer to President Jammeh is to concede to defeat," he told Senegal's 2S channel. "Please, let peace continue to reign in The Gambia." .
Jammeh had attempted to block Barrow's inauguration with a court ruling and this week declared a state of emergency, prompting tour operators to evacuate holidaymakers from The Gambia's popular beach resorts.
There were warnings that the panic caused by the state of emergency could prove financially devastating - experts say up to 20 per cent of the economy comes from tourism.
Arriving back at Manchester airport in England, several passengers could be seen comforting a Gambian national and UK resident who had tried unsuccessfully to get his family out.
Ebrima Jajne described the situation as "really scary for everybody... because this president (Jammeh) doesn't want to step down and people are fleeing."