BANJUL — West African leaders said it was no longer possible for Gambia's veteran leader Yahya Jammeh to stay in power as regional military forces stood ready to advance on the capital Banjul on Friday.
A regional delegation was due to visit Banjul to give Jammeh a last chance to quit peacefully and cede office to newly-elected President Adama Barrow.
"It's out of the question that he stays in place," said Marcel de Souza, head of a commission from the regional grouping ECOWAS.
West African troops spearheaded by Senegal and Nigeria crossed into Gambia on Thursday at the request of Barrow, who was sworn in on Thursday at Gambia's embassy in Dakar as Jammeh refused to step down.
Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup and whose mandate has ended, initially conceded defeat to Barrow following a Dec. 1 election before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed.
The West African armies gave Jammeh until midday on Friday to quit before they continue their advance across the sliver of a country to Banjul. The deadline passed but a Senegalese presidential source said the forces would wait for the end of talks before taking further action.
Gambia's only land border is with Senegal and the regional coalition, which ECOWAS says involves 7,000 troops, has entered from the southeast, southwest and north.
Guinea's President Alpha Conde and Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz left the Mauritanian capital at 11.05 a.m. local time (1105 GMT) on Aziz's presidential plane, a security source told Reuters.
REFUGEES FLEE TO SENEGAL
Diplomats said regional leaders had been close to a deal before but talks broke down over where Jammeh goes. While Barrow's aides say Jammeh can remain in the country on his Kanilai estate, Senegal insists he leave Gambia, diplomats said.
His estate is heavily fortified, witnesses say, and just 1 km from Senegal's border.
"There is a real possibility this could work. I don't think he is going the (Saddam) Hussein route," said a regional diplomat, referring to the Iraqi leader who was arrested in 2003 following an invasion, tried and hanged.
U.N. officials including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, U.N. Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were already in Banjul.
It was not immediately clear if Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose conversation with Jammeh was secretly filmed and broadcast last week by his aides, would join the talks.
In a sign of the apparent lack of resistance to the regional coalition, just two soldiers guarded the state television building in Banjul, a witness said. Streets were mostly deserted on Friday and shops, restaurants and petrol stations were shut.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said about 45,000 people, mainly children, have fled to Senegal since Jan. 1. It cited figures from the Senegalese government.
"The next few days will be critical and more people may leave the country if the current situation is not resolved peacefully soon," UNHCR said in a statement.
Residents near the border said army defectors were among them.
Thousands of foreign tourists have also departed the country. Gambia, with its Atlantic beaches, is a popular holiday destination for Europeans and tourism is a mainstay of the economy.
Barrow has been recognised as Gambia's new president by world powers and Jammeh is increasingly isolated at home as ministers abandoned his camp.
Hundreds of people celebrated Barrow's swearing in and the ECOWAS advance into Gambia. Jammeh, who once vowed to rule for "a billion years", has earned a reputation for torturing and killing perceived opponents to stifle dissent.
His intentions remain unclear but on Thursday he dissolved the government - half of whose members have already resigned - and pledged to name a new one "in due course".
Support for him remained strong in some quarters, reflecting his many years of power in the country of 1.8 million people.
"We just want them to settle this so we can have peace," said Momodou Badji, 78, in Banjul's Kanifing neighbourhood.
Badji said he supported Jammeh and was head of the council of elders for Jammeh's party in the area.
"Why should the other countries interfere. Why should they force him to leave?" he told Reuters.
On Thursday night, army chief General Ousman Badjie, who had stood by Jammeh, was seen smiling on the streets, wading through a mass of jubilant Banjul residents shouting and dancing.
Barrow asked for foreign help to assume office immediately after he was sworn in on Thursday, a plan that was backed by the U.N. Security Council in New York.
(Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Diadie Ba in Dakar and Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott; Writing by David Lewis and Matthew Mpoke Bigg Editing by)