Embattled Yahya Jammeh has asked for the extension of the deadline given to him to vacate office by ECOWAS from noon to 4 pm local time, Reuters reported on Friday.
It was reported that Senegal forces entered the Gambia hours after the opposition figure Adama Barrow, who won the December 2016 presidential election in the small West African nation, was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Dakar.
But the military intervention – named Operation Restore Democracy – aimed at installing Barrow as the president of the country has been halted temporarily to allow for a last-ditch negotiation.
“We think that up until the last minute there is still a solution through dialogue,” said Marcel de Souza, head of the ECOWAS commission, explaining the decision to suspend the advance to reporters in Dakar late on Thursday.
De Souza said a total of 7,000 troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Mali would be involved in the operation.
Troops had already entered Gambia from the southeast, southwest and north before they were ordered to stop.
The advance will resume at noon (1200 GMT) on Friday if Jammeh still refused to leave, he said. Barrow will return to Gambia once the operation is over.
The UN Security Council on Thursday backed ECOWAS’s efforts to ensure Barrow assumes power, and the U.S. said it supported the intervention.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement pledged “his full support for his (Barrow’s) determination, and ECOWAS’s historic decision, with the unanimous backing of the Security Council, to restore the rule of law in The Gambia so as to honour and respect the will of the Gambian people.”
ECOWAS and the AU previously said they would recognise Barrow from Thursday, and nations including the United Kingdom and France were quick to congratulate him.
Following Barrow’s swearing in, hundreds of Gambians celebrated in the streets of Banjul, the capital, cautiously at first, and then gradually in larger numbers as they realised the security forces looking on were not going to open fire.
Army chief Gen. Ousman Badjie, who had publicly stood by Jammeh, was seen smiling on the streets wading through a mass of jubilant Banjul residents shouting and dancing.
Cars raced up and down the highway lined with iron-roofed shops in the pro-Barrow Serrekunda district of Banjul, with horns honking and people hanging out the windows.
“The dictator is out,” shouted pharmacist Lamine Jao, 30, as others cheered and whistled in agreement.
“It’s just a question of time. We’ll soon flush him out. Believe me.”
During the brief inauguration speech, Barrow asserted his new role as commander and chief of Gambia’s armed services, ordering soldiers to stay calm and remain in their barracks.
Those who did not would be considered rebels, he said.
ECOWAS will send a team led by Guinea’s president, Alpha Conde, and including the presidents of Liberia and Mauritania to Banjul on Friday, de Souza said.
If the mission succeeds, Jammeh will travel to Guinea before choosing a country of exile.
“It’s out of the question that he stays in place. … We propose that he leaves in an honourable manner and with respect,” said de Souza, who added that regional leaders were open to the possibility of an amnesty as part of a deal.
It was unclear what Jammeh’s next move would be. He has so far ignored pressure to step aside and offers of exile.
He now faces almost total diplomatic isolation and a government riddled by defections.
In the biggest loss yet, Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy, who has held the role since 1997, quit on Wednesday.
In a statement released late on Thursday, Jammeh announced he was dissolving his government – a 19-member Cabinet, half of whose members had already resigned – and pledged to name a new one “in due course.”