Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - Gambian president-elect Adama Barrow was to take power Thursday, capping weeks of tension over Yahya Jammeh's refusal to quit which has seen Senegalese and Nigerian troops massing at the border and tourists racing to leave.
With Senegalese troops backed by Nigerian forces and fighter jets gathering, the country appeared on the brink of a military crisis although the army chief insisted his soldiers would not get involved in a "political dispute" nor prevent foreign forces from entering The Gambia.
Despite a midnight (0000 GMT) deadline for the expiry of Jammeh's term, the situation remained calm in the city overnight, witnesses said following a last-minute mediation attempt by the Mauritanian president.
Jammeh, who has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist for 22 years, initially acknowledged Barrow as the victor in December elections, but later rejected the result, this week declaring a national state of emergency.
With the country in deadlock, hundreds of panicked tourists were rushing to leave after Britain and the Netherlands issued travel warnings, with the small airport near Banjul struggling to handle the influx.
Although Barrow is holed up in Senegal until he can cross the border safely, officials insisted his inauguration would go ahead but there were no immediate details.
- Inauguration to go ahead -
Speaking to AFP by phone, senior coalition official Isatou Touray said her team in Banjul had still not been told where the inauguration would take place or at what time, but was adamant it would go ahead.
And she welcomed a declaration by army chief Ousman Badjie that his troops would not prevent Jammeh's removal by force.
"That's a very positive outlook from him, given that Jammeh's regime is done," Touray said.
"We don't have to risks the lives of innocent citizens."
In remarks at a hotel restaurant late on Wednesday, Badjie said he loved his men and wouldn't risk their lives in a "stupid fight," eyewitnesses said.
A spokesman Mai Fatty for Barrow's opposition coalition said anyone carrying weapons on the streets "shall face definite consequences, to their peril" in a Facebook post.
Soldiers and police would "certainly become a legitimate target" if they stood in the way of the new government, Fatty added.
Despite the buildup along the border, an army source told AFP Senegalese troops were "not yet" present on Gambian soil.
- Eyes on border -
After 11th-hour talks in Banjul, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel flew on to Dakar where he met with Barrow for talks at which Senegal's President Macky Sall was also present, the private RFM radio station reported.
It was not clear whether the Mauritanian leader had secured a deal or made an asylum offer to Jammeh.
The last-minute intervention by Mauritania came after several unsuccessful attempts at diplomacy by the 15-nation Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS).
Mauritania is not part of ECOWAS and diplomats have previously reached out to the conservative desert nation in hopes of brokering a deal with Jammeh.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet later on Thursday to adopt a statement on west Africa that will reaffirm the demand for Jammeh to stand down, diplomats said.
- 'An important message' -
Barrow and his team have said the inauguration will go ahead on Thursday on Gambian soil.
But the inauguration's head organiser James Gomez said plans for the ceremony to take place in a huge stadium outside the capital had been cancelled.
On Tuesday, Jammeh announced a state of emergency due to what he said was foreign interference in the December election.
Speaking to AFP at the World Economic Forum in Davos Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty hailed ECOWAS efforts to resolve the crisis.
"ECOWAS has stood up, and they don't always do that, he said.
"It's an important message to Jammeh, both from the people of The Gambia, the people of Africa, and from neighbouring states, that it's not business as usual any more."