Gambia army chief stands by embattled President Jammeh


 Reuters International

FILE PHOTO Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh attends the plenary session of the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Gambia's army chief reaffirmed his loyalty to embattled President Yahya Jammeh on Wednesday in the face of a possible regional military intervention to enforce the result of an election that dealt the longtime leader a surprise defeat.

Jammeh initially accepted his defeat in the Dec. 1 election but a week later reversed his position, vowing to hang onto power despite a wave of regional and international condemnation.

West African regional bloc ECOWAS has placed standby forces on alert in case Jammeh attempts to stay in power after his mandate ends on Jan. 19. Jammeh has called the bloc's stance "a declaration of war".

"May I please seize this opportunity to renew to your Excellency the assurance of the unflinching loyalty and support of the Gambia Armed Forces," General Ousman Badjie wrote in a letter to Jammeh published in a pro-government newspaper.

Many Gambians, who have lived through 22 years of Jammeh's increasingly authoritarian rule, were stunned when the elections commission declared opposition figure Adama Barrow the winner of last month's election. Jammeh's initial acceptance of the result sparked nationwide celebrations.

Badjie declared his allegiance to Barrow soon after the poll results were announced, according to a spokesman for the president-elect. However his position remained unclear following Jammeh's dramatic about-face.

In an illustration of the growing pressure on Gambian officials as the Jan. 19 deadline looms, Alieu Momarr Njai, the head of the elections commission, fled Gambia on Friday due to fears for his security, family members said.

Last month Gambian security forces seized control of the commission's headquarters, which holds the original poll records and told staff, including Njai, to leave.

Over the weekend Gambian security agents closed three private radio stations, making it harder for the incoming government to communicate with its supporters.

"It is a sign of weakness for any side of the political spectrum to resort to media closures rather than engagement to put one's position across," Barrow's office said on Wednesday in a statement that also called for the release of detainees.

Leaders of ECOWAS member nations have dismissed Jammeh's move to challenge his election defeat before Gambia's Supreme Court on Jan. 10 and say they will attend Barrow's swearing-in this month.

(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Reuters

 Reuters International