West Africa's regional bloc has threatened to use force in Gambia if the country's longtime leader does not step down in January as scheduled, following his loss in presidential elections.
The chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Marcel de Souza, told reporters Friday that the bloc has a standby force.
"The deadline is January 19, when the mandate of [President Yahya] Jammeh expires,'' de Souza said. "If he doesn't go, we have a standby force, which is already on alert." He said the force should be able to intervene "to restore the will of the people."
De Souza said ECOWAS had chosen Senegal to lead any military operation. Senegal, which geographically surrounds Gambia on three sides, had previously said that military action would be a last resort.
The regional group has been leading diplomatic efforts to try to persuade Jammeh to step down.
Jammeh, who has ruled Gambia for 22 years, initially accepted defeat after December's presidential election, but a week later he changed his mind. He said voting irregularities made him question the win by opposition candidate Adama Barrow.
The president has said ECOWAS has no authority to meddle in Gambia's internal affairs.
Took power in coup
Jammeh, 51, has ruled the tiny West African nation since taking power in a military coup in 1994. He won four subsequent elections that critics said were neither free nor fair and supported a 2002 constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits. He once said he could rule Gambia for "a billion years."
Rights groups have often accused Jammeh of having political opponents and journalists either arrested or killed.
Barrow, also 51, represented a coalition of seven opposition parties that challenged Jammeh in December's election. Gambia's Independent Electoral Commission said that Barrow won 263,000 votes, or 45 percent of the total, while Jammeh took 212,000 votes, about 36 percent. A third candidate, Mama Kandeh, won 17 percent.
Gambia's Supreme Court will hear a case next month, brought by Jammeh, that seeks to cancel results of the December election.
Gambia, a former British colony, occupies a narrow sliver of land surrounded by French-speaking Senegal. About 880,000 Gambians were eligible to vote in the December 1 poll, which took place under a complete communications blackout, including social media platforms.