Gambia says it foiled coup plot, ringleader flees

By Pap Saine

BANJUL – Gambia’s government said on Wednesday it had uncovered a coup plot led by the country’s defence chief and arrested most of those involved, except the military ringleader who was on the run.

An official statement an

nounced the conspiracy in the tiny West African country after President Yahya Jammeh had cut short a trip to Mauritania late on Tuesday and returned home.

“The security forces discovered in the late hours of yesterday that a group of army officers led by Colonel Ndure Cham, former Chief of Defence Staff, were at an advanced stage in a plot to overthrow the constituted government of the Republic of Gambia,” the statement said.

“All those involved are presently under custody and helping the security forces in their investigation, except the leader who is still at large,” it added.

The government named new defence and intelligence chiefs in an apparent purge of the top security posts in the impoverished former British colony, which depends on peanut farming, fishing and tourism for its livelihood.

The tiny state is a narrow sliver extending along the Gambia river, sandwiched between north and south halves of Senegal.

Military sources said 10 men, mostly senior army officers, had been detained on suspicion of plotting a coup.

They included National Intelligence Agency Director Daba Marena, the army’s public relations spokesman Captain Bunja Darboe and the security director at Banjul’s international airport, Lamin Gassama.

They said a number of other officers, including Cham, had fled. There were no reports of shooting or violence.

The government said it uncovered the plot “in the course of conducting routine security surveillance” but gave no more details.

BANJUL CALM

Banjul, the country’s sleepy riverside capital, was calm on Wednesday.

But soldiers armed with assault rifles had stepped up security checks late on Tuesday on Denton Bridge, which links the capital to the mainland, searching cars entering the city and causing long tailbacks on Wednesday morning.

“The general public is hereby assured that there is no cause for alarm as the situation is firmly under control,” the government said in a message to the country’s 1.5 million inhabitants broadcast on state radio.

“They can go about their normal business as usual,” it added.

Lt.-Col. Lang Tombong Tamba was named as the new Chief of Defence Staff, replacing Cham, while Lt-Col. Harry Sambou was appointed Acting Director General of the National Intelligence Agency.

Jammeh, who seized power in Gambia in a bloodless coup in 1994, is expected to seek a third elected term in elections due in October 2006.

In February, the former wrestler dropped a case against three opposition leaders charged with acts including criticising the president, under a deal brokered by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to ensure peaceful elections.

Opponents accuse Jammeh of a range of human rights abuses as well as rigging previous elections. He opened his campaign for the 2001 presidential polls by saying he had already won and threatening to shoot anyone who disrupted polling. — Reuter