The Gambian government has denied reports of an alleged attempted coup against President Yahya Jammeh.
Gunfire erupted early Tuesday in the capital, Banjul, and residents awoke to find government buildings and the main bridge into the city sealed off by soldiers.
A government statement described the reports of a coup as rumors and said peace and calm continue to prevail in the West African country.
Pa Samba Jow, the spokesman for the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists in the Diaspora, said his organization wishes the attempted coup would have been successful. Jow said Gambians want to get rid of Jammeh, who his group accuses of abrogating the rights and freedoms of Gambians for 20 years with impunity.
“I think, for this time, it was a genuine attempt to definitely get rid of this regime that has abrogated the rights of Gambians for over 20 years. I think the regime has denied Gambians all avenues, legally and constitutionally, to change the manner of their government. People are left with no other choice but to try to end it by any means necessary,” he said.
Jow described the alleged coup plotters as freedom fighters who, he said, are determined to restore democracy to The Gambia.
Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994. His government has been heavily criticized abroad for what Amnesty International called its iron fisted repression and widespread human rights violations.
In its 2013 Human Rights Report, the U.S. State Department said The Gambia’s most serious human rights problems included government interference with the electoral process, harassment and abuse of its critics, and torture, arrest, detention, and sometimes enforced disappearance of citizens.
The rights group Civil Society Associations Gambia criticized President Obama for hosting Jammeh at the White House during the U.S.-Africa summit in August, which drew dozens of African heads of state to the U.S. capital.
Jow said everything has gone wrong under Jammeh.
“When Jammeh came to power, the reason he claimed was corruption and overstay in power by the previous regime. Jammeh made the claim that he will never introduce dictatorship in the country, that nobody will ever rule the country for more than 10 years. As we speak, he’s been in power for 20 years. As we speak, Yahyah Jammeh, who came to power a poor man, is now one of the richest people in the country, if not the whole of Africa,” Jow said.
The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have both frowned on coups.
Jow said that had the alleged coup succeeded, the AU and ECOWAS would have no choice but to support the restoration of democracy in The Gambia.
“Gambians have not been accorded any opportunity to change the manner of their government in a peaceful, democratic way. What is important is for sure that the international community support the Gambian people and to install the restoration of democracy and to make sure that nobody in the history of that country takes the government of the people from the back of the people,” Jow said.
Jow said the Gambian media is under constant attack under Jammeh and that the government does not allow for the free exercise of democratic rights.
The French News Agency quoted an unnamed military officer as saying three suspects were killed in the violence, including the alleged ringleader, whom the officer described as an army deserter.
A US State Department spokesman said the United States strongly condemns any attempt to seize power through extra constitutional means.