By Emma Farge
BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambia's army chief has pledged allegiance to President-elect Adama Barrow, Barrow's spokeswoman said on Wednesday, reinforcing hopes that the tiny West African nation will see its first peaceful change of power in more than half a century.
A self-made real estate developer who once worked as a security guard at retailer Argos in London, Barrow beat incumbent Yahya Jammeh in last Thursday's election.
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Jammeh, an autocrat who had banned opposition protests and pledged to rule Gambia for a "billion years", shocked Gambians by admitting defeat, raising questions about what had persuaded him that the game was up.
"General Badjie called to congratulate Mr. Barrow on his victory and to offer his allegiance," spokeswoman Amie Bojang told Reuters in Banjul, a capital of white beaches and palm trees on the southern lip of the mouth of the Gambia river.
An army spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
Though Jammeh called Barrow to congratulate him on his victory last week, the pair have not met since the vote. The constitution says he must hand over a month after the poll.
Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup that unseated Dawda Jawara, the country's leader since its independence from Great Britain in 1965. Welcomed at first on a promise of ending corruption, Jammeh became increasingly intolerant of dissent, jailing and torturing opponents, human rights groups say.
His unexpected defeat was greeted with joy in Banjul, the capital, with crowds pulling down the ubiquitous posters of a grinning Jammeh and trampling them under foot.
Gambians are hoping the quiet businessman Barrow will bring a new era of stability, after living under a president who arrested people for being witches and wizards and claimed to have magical herbal cures for AIDS and infertility.
Barrow has promised to end rights abuses and step down after three years as a boost to democracy.
A heavy police presence remains on the streets, a hangover from an era many Gambians are hoping is now behind them.
In the last two days, 31 political prisoners have been released or granted bail.
Mai Ahmed Fatty, the head of Barrow's coalition transition team told Reuters in Banjul that he was not worried that a meeting between Jammeh and Barrow has not yet taken place.
"We take the outgoing president at his word," said Fatty. "Part of our request ... was to release the political prisoners. This was done and it shows good will."
(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Tim Cocks and Richard Lough)