Senegalese troops backed by other African forces were poised to enter The Gambia after President Yahya Jammeh refused to leave office, ignoring a midnight deadline to stand down or face military action.
Mr Jammeh’s army chief said his troops would not fight their entry into the country, as the Mauritanian president flew out of The Gambia following hopes of a last minute deal to convince Mr Jammeh to hand over power.
“We are not going to involve ourselves militarily. This is a political dispute,” Chief of Defence Staff Ousman Badjie said.
“I am not going to involve my soldiers in a stupid fight. I love my men,” he added.
“If they (Senegalese) come in, we are here like this,” Mr Badjie said, making a hands up or surrender gesture.
Mr Jammeh’s mandate ended at midnight Irish time but he has steadfastly refused to leave office after losing elections last month to Adama Barrow, prompting west African states to ramp up pressure on the president following weeks of failed diplomacy.
Nigeria sent troops and fighter jets to Senegal, whose own forces massed on the Gambian border.
Witnesses said the situation was calm in Banjul overnight, although troops had been deployed in the city.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet later to adopt a statement on West Africa that will reaffirm the demand for Jammeh to hand over power, diplomats said.
“If a political solution fails, we will engage” in operations in The Gambia, Senegal army spokesman Colonel Abdou Ndiaye said ahead of the deadline.
Unsuccessful attempts by the 15-nation Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) led Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to fly into Banjul at the eleventh hour for a final round of talks.
Following the discussions he was hopeful of reaching a peaceful solution, he was quoted as saying by Gambian state broadcaster GRTS.
Mauritania is not part of ECOWAS and diplomats have previously reached out to the conservative desert nation in hopes of brokering an asylum deal with Mr Jammeh.
Shortly before midnight Mr Aziz’s plane landed in Dakar, where he was met by Mr Barrow – who is currently sheltering there – and Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the private Senegalese radio station RFM reported.
Senegal has also requested UN backing for regional action against the long time president.
However, a vote on the draft resolution has yet to be scheduled, according to diplomats.
State of emergency
Mr Barrow and his team maintain his inauguration will go ahead later on Gambian soil, and his spokesman said late last night that “we do not feel any threat” from Senegalese troops on the ground.
However, the inauguration’s head organiser James Gomez said plans for the transfer of power in a huge stadium outside the capital were now cancelled.
The 51-year-old Gambian leader announced a state of emergency on Tuesday, saying it was necessary because of interference from foreign powers in the country’s 1 December election, but the declaration has had little effect on attempts to remove him.
The country’s vice-president Isatou Njie-Saidy resigned yesterday, family sources said, along with the environment and higher education ministers, in the latest of a string of cabinet members deserting Jammeh’s government.