With its glorious Atlantic coast beaches, Gambia is a popular destination for British tourists. The Foreign Office estimated there were 2,000 British residents and tourists there; they appeared to be in no danger, it said, but were advised to stay in their homes or hotels.
'This country is being taken over by the Gambian armed forces. The previous political regime has been completely toppled,' a man identifying himself as Lieutenant Yaya Jameh said in a broadcast monitored in neighbouring Senegal. 'The former head of state, Sir Dawda Jawara, has fled the nation. Some former government ministers have been captured and are in safe hands.'
The US State Department said that Sir Dawda, head of state since independence from Britain in 1965, had taken refuge on the Lamoure County, which was off the coast in preparation for manoeuvres with the Gambian navy. In a radio interview from the ship, Sir Dawda Jawara said he hoped to regain power. 'It looks like a coup, but since (the mutineers) have asked to enter into a dialogue one could not say that everything is finalised now,' he said.
Lieutenant Jameh said his men had arrested Vice-President Saihou Sabally and established a provisional ruling council, consisting of himself and three other lieutenants - Sadibu Hydara, F D Sabali and I Signateh. The takeover appears to have begun on Friday when troops rebelled in support of demands for back pay that they had been owed for peace- keeping duties in Liberia. In Washington, the State Department deputy spokeswoman said: 'We have heard reports that the army and the police have not been paid in approximately three months.'
By the end of Friday troops had taken over the international airport, radio station and a power station. International telephone lines went dead and messages to Banjul's public telex office went unanswered. The airport and borders were reported closed yesterday.
Gambia is a tiny nation of a million people, bordered on three sides by Senegal and on the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean. Its 800-strong army was led by a Nigerian colonel under a 1992 agreement between the two former British colonies. There has been no word so far of Colonel Lawan Gwadabe, who took over the command in a routine rotation last month.
In 1982, Sir Dawda led his country into a Senegambia Confederation. The pact collapsed in 1989, mainly because of Gambia's reluctance to speed up trade and customs union, which would have put an end to the lucrative black market trade with Senegal. After that, Gambia increasingly turned to Nigeria for support, and signed a defence pact with it in 1992.
Yesterday the British government said it 'strongly deplored' the mutiny, and Emeka Anyaoku, the Nigerian Commonwealth Secretary-General, condemned the takeover, saying that, if confirmed, it would be 'a tragedy for the Gambia, which has a credible record in the field of human rights'.
The 70-year-old President Jawara saw himself as a staunch defender of Gambia's multi-
party democracy, though opposition groups claimed to have been shut out of power illegally. In 1991 he announced his retirement, but changed his mind to avoid weakening his People's Progressive Party (PPP), and was re-elected for a fifth term in April 1992.
He has survived several coup attempts during his three decades in power, the bloodiest in 1981 while he was in London for the wedding of the Prince of Wales. Gambia, which at the time had no army, called on neighbouring Senegal to put down the revolt, and President Jawara was returned to power after a week of fighting.
Sir Dawda lived for six years in Glasgow, graduating from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1954.