Gambia’s army chief on Friday abandoned embattled longtime leader Yahya Jammeh, saying his forces would not fight against a military operation to remove him, as regional leaders led a last ditch effort to convince him to flee into exile.
The defection of General Ousman Badjie, who had previously stood by Jammeh, removes what was perhaps the former coup leader’s last remaining pillar of support, potentially raising the likelihood of a peaceful solution to the political impasse.
New President Adama Barrow, who won December’s election, was sworn into office on Thursday and immediately called for regional and international support. West African militaries announced soon after that they had crossed into Gambia.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone, Badjie said he recognised Barrow as the army’s commander-in-chief and would welcome, not fight, the regional force.
“We are going to welcome them with flowers and make them a cup of tea,” he said. “This is a political problem. It’s a misunderstanding. We are not going to fight Nigerian, Togolese or any military that comes.”
West African leaders Alpha Conde of Guinea and Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz meanwhile flew to the capital Banjul on Friday to allow Jammeh one last chance to cede power peacefully.
U.N. officials, including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, U.N. Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were also involved in the talks.
The military operation was halted late on Thursday to give mediation a chance, and a midday deadline was extended on Friday as negotiations, which diplomats said were focusing on a deal to grant Jammeh immunity from prosecution, continued.
“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.
A senior official from regional bloc ECOWAS, under whose mandate the military operation was launched, said late on Thursday that there was no question that Jammeh would be allowed to remain in Gambia, even if he agreed to step down.