British holidaymakers have told of a “chaotic” scramble to get on flights out of crisis-torn Gambia.
Around 1,000 tourists on Thomas Cook packages were ordered to pack their bags and head for the airport after the Foreign Office (FCO) issued an alert late on Tuesday.
The Gambia is threatened with potential military action by regional forces after unseated president, Yahya Jammeh, refused to hand over power to Adama Barrow by midnight last night.
Holidaymakers described a “nightmare” situation at the airport in the country’s capital of Banjul where locals are also trying to flee the west African nation.
“People were crying and panicking. It was just chaos,” said Sara Wilkins, from Church Stretton, Shropshire, as she arrived back at Manchester Airport.
Thomas Cook deployed four extra flights alongside a scheduled service to return its 985 package holiday customers.
It is believed around 2,500 Britons were in The Gambia when the FCO issued its warning.
Elicia Gardner, a teacher at Portland School, Stoke-on-Trent, who was on a week’s volunteering trip in a school with three pupils, said: “A lot of people out there are quite worried, and we are worried for our friends out there, the Gambian people who were taking care of us.”
Gambian Ebrima Jagne, a textile engineer in Burnley, Lancashire, was forced to leave his wife Haddytouray and their three-month-old daughter Ajiamina Jane.
He said everyone in the country felt “unsafe” and “on edge, because you don't know what’s going to come next.
“I cannot get my daughter out. I’m desperate. It’s not easy at all when I leave my wife there and daughter,” he said, through tears.
President-of-22-years Mr Jammeh, who declared a 90-day national state of emergency, refuses to cede power to rival Mr Barrow, who is in Senegal but was due to be inaugurated today.
Ms Wilkins says she had been unaware of the growing risk while on holiday and said: “We weren’t getting any proper communication.
“Then I rang Thomas Cook again this morning and they said: ‘Pack your bags, you’ve got to go.’
“We just panicked, just threw everything in a case and just got out of there basically.”
Pensioner Sue Thrower, from Doncaster, said she found out about the evacuation through a friend she met on holiday.
Ms Thrower said: “If it hadn’t of been for that young woman of 28 with her smartphone talking to her mum back home, we wouldn’t have known we had to pack after breakfast this morning.”
Ralph Newton, from Nottingham, said: “We didn’t get communication until this morning, 9am, saying ‘you’ve got to leave, the reps are coming at 10am’.
“No reps came, the coaches came and then it was just a bit of chaos, but they did their best at the airport.”
Thomas Cook, which has 18 hotels in The Gambia, said that when the FCO changed its advice late on Tuesday night, its seven representatives in the country could not reach customers in hotels because of the current dusk-until-dawn curfew.
A spokesman said it dispatched coaches by mid-morning, that Banjul airport has few departure gates and very few local staff because of the crisis, and that it has dispatched an extra team to the country for support.
She also said the company was doing everything it can to contact flight-only customers, who do not necessarily give contact details to Thomas Cook, and that nine extra flights were being provided Thursday to Friday.
“The safety of our customers is always our first priority and we are continuing to work hard to get all our UK customers home as quickly as possible,” she said.
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