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BANJUL (Reuters) - Thousands of soldiers from West African bloc ECOWAS will start returning home this month from Gambia, from where long-time leader Yahya Jammeh was forced to flee last month, paving the way for new President Adama Barrow to take office.

The multinational force will be cut to 500 troops from the 7,000 sent into Gambia after Jammeh, who had ruled since seizing power in a 1994 coup, refused to accepted Barrow's victory in a Dec. 1 election.

A statement from Barrow's office read on state television late on Thursday said that the gradual scaling down of the force would begin no later than Feb. 19.

Troops from Gambia's neighbour Senegal as well as from Ghana and Nigeria will make up the smaller operation, whose mandate begins on Feb. 21 and will last for three months.

Their mission will include protecting Barrow and other government members and institutions as trust is established between the new authorities and Gambia's military, which was a pillar of Jammeh's authoritarian regime.

Barrow had initially requested that the ECOWAS force's mission be extended by six months, a senior United Nations official said late last month.

(Reporting by Pap Saine; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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