Adama Barrow, pictured on December 11, 2016, is sworn in as Gambia's president
Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - The Gambia's top judge on Monday pulled out of hearing a bid by President Yahya Jammeh to halt the inauguration of president-elect Adama Barrow later this week, in a blow to the incumbent head of state.
The small west African country has been plunged in political turmoil since Jammeh disputed Barrow's December election victory and refused to cede power.
Jammeh has lodged a challenge to the election result with The Gambia's Supreme Court and last week filed a fresh injunction to prevent the chief justice from swearing Barrow into office.
But on Monday Chief Justice Emmanuel Fagbenle said he could not hear the new case, dealing a blow to Jammeh's efforts to halt Thursday's inauguration.
"Given that the injunction affects me in my capacity as the chief justice, I will recuse myself from hearing it," he said.
"The motion therefore waits for the constitution of the Supreme Court or allow the judges to arrive in The Gambia."
Edward Gomez, a lawyer for Jammeh's party, conceded it was "certainly not possible under these circumstances" to have an injunction barring Barrow from being sworn in.
The Gambia relies on foreign judges, notably from Nigeria, to staff its courts due to a lack of its own trained professionals.
Last week the Supreme Court said Jammeh's challenge to the election result could not be heard for several months as it did not have a full bench, and the extra judges needed to hear the case were not available.
- High tensions -
Barrow is in Senegal, where he plans to remain until the inauguration on Thursday.
On Monday his special advisor Mai Fatty read a statement on his behalf in Dakar, urging Gambians to "exercise restraint, observe the rule of law and not to respond to provocation".
A personal tragedy struck Barrow on Sunday when his eight-year-old son Habibou died after being bitten by dogs, according to a family source.
With tensions running high, Jammeh said on Sunday that he had spoken to Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and was adamant he would not budge until the Supreme Court had heard his challenge to the poll result.
"The so-called deadline of 19th January 2017 is not cast in stone and all parties shall await the outcome of the Supreme Court," he said on state television.
Leaders of neighbouring countries and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) have repeatedly called on the long-serving strongman to leave office peacefully, so far to no avail.
As well as Sirleaf, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Ghana's ex-president John Mahama have appealed to Jammeh to step down twice in person, without success, most recently on Friday.
Barrow was the surprise guest at a Bamako summit over the weekend, where he was welcomed as a head of state and introduced to several world leaders.
The prospect of military intervention in The Gambia has even been floated in recent days, following declarations by the United Nations and African Union that boots on the ground could get the green light without a rapid resolution of the crisis.
The head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel said on Friday that ECOWAS would ask the Security Council to approve the deployment of troops to The Gambia if Jammeh continues to refuse to leave office.