By Tim Cocks
BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambia's army chief on Friday abandoned embattled longtime leader Yahya Jammeh, saying his forces would not fight against a military operation to remove him, as regional leaders led a last ditch effort to convince him to flee into exile.
The defection of General Ousman Badjie, who had previously stood by Jammeh, removes what was perhaps the former coup leader's last remaining pillar of support, potentially raising the likelihood of a peaceful solution to the political impasse.
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New President Adama Barrow, who won December's election, was sworn into office on Thursday and immediately called for regional and international support. West African militaries announced soon after that they had crossed into Gambia.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone, Badjie said he recognized Barrow as the army's commander-in-chief and would welcome, not fight, the regional force.
"We are going to welcome them with flowers and make them a cup of tea," he said. "This is a political problem. It's a misunderstanding. We are not going to fight Nigerian, Togolese or any military that comes."
West African leaders Alpha Conde of Guinea and Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz meanwhile flew to the capital Banjul on Friday to allow Jammeh one last chance to cede power peacefully.
U.N. officials, including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, U.N. Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were also involved in the talks.
The military operation was halted late on Thursday to give mediation a chance, and a midday deadline was extended on Friday as negotiations, which diplomats said were focusing on a deal to grant Jammeh immunity from prosecution, continued.
"There is a real possibility this could work. I don't think he is going the (Saddam) Hussein route," said a regional diplomat, referring to the Iraqi leader who was arrested in 2003 following an invasion, tried and hanged.
A senior official from regional bloc ECOWAS, under whose mandate the military operation was launched, said late on Thursday that there was no question that Jammeh would be allowed to remain in Gambia, even if he agreed to step down.
Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup, initially conceded defeat to Barrow following a Dec. 1 election before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed and demanding a new ballot.
Late on Thursday, he dissolved the government - half of whose members had already resigned - and pledged to name a new one.
His estate - located just 1 km from the border with Senegal, Gambia's sole neighbor, which surrounds it on three sides - was heavily fortified on Friday, witnesses say.
ECOWAS says its intervention, dubbed Operation Restore Democracy, involves 7,000 troops and is backed by tanks and warplanes. Forces have already entered Gambia from the southeast, southwest and north.
The size of Gambia's army is unclear, but estimates of range from 800 to up to 2,500 soldiers.
While Barrow's election victory last month and inauguration on Thursday were celebrated by many across the tiny nation of less than 2 million people, support for Jammeh remained strong among some Gambians, who opposed the military intervention.
"Why should the other countries interfere. Why should they force him to leave?" said Momodou Badji, 78, in Banjul's Kanifing neighborhood.
Gambia is of little strategic significance, but if a peaceful transition of power fails, it would be a setback for the advance of democracy in Africa.
During his 22-years in power, Jammeh, who once vowed to rule Gambia "for a billion years", has been accused by rights groups of torturing and killing perceived opponents.
Yet Gambia remains a popular holiday destination for European tourists drawn to its tropical beaches.
Streets in the capital were mostly deserted on Friday and shops, restaurants and petrol stations were shut.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said about 45,000 people, mainly children, have fled to Senegal since Jan. 1 amid growing fears of unrest. Thousands of tourists have also left this week.
(Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Diadie Ba in Dakar and Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott; Editing by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Joe Bavier; Editing by Alison Williams)