Banjul: Gunfire erupted around the presidential palace in Gambia`s capital of Banjul overnight and soldiers blocked a bridge leading to the centre of town, but the government denied reports of an attempted coup.
A diplomat said unknown gunmen had attacked State House during the night but shooting had died down later. A senior West African diplomat told Reuters that gunmen controlled some parts of the capital on Tuesday afternoon.
President Yahya Jammeh was abroad, either in France or Dubai, when the violence broke out. He later landed in Chad in a plane bearing the presidential emblem, a Reuters witness said. Callers on opposition online radio stations urged residents to rise up and keep him from returning.
Jammeh, 49, who himself took power in a coup 20 years ago, has stifled dissent in his tiny, impoverished West African nation. He has come under increasing criticism from abroad over issues ranging from human rights to his claims that he can cure AIDS.
State radio mostly played traditional music on Tuesday, but an announcer read a government statement playing down the incident. "Contrary to rumours being circulated, peace and calm continue to prevail in The Gambia," it said. "(The) government would like to urge the public and all businesses to continue with their normal activities.
Gambia, a splinter of land wedged into Senegal, has ocean beaches that attract tourists, particularly during the northern hemisphere winter. They include about 60,000 Britons a year, and the British foreign office advised its citizens to stay indoors and avoid public gatherings.
Eyewitnesses in the centre of Banjul, which is situated on an island and connected to rest of the city by the Denton Bridge, said security forces were stationed on street corners and patrolling the streets after several hours of shooting early Tuesday morning.
Banks and other offices in the capital and surrounding neighbourhoods remained closed. Residents locked themselves indoors.
A French foreign ministry spokesman said Jammeh was not on an official trip in Paris and diplomatic sources said there was no indication he was in France on a private visit. Gambian state television said at the weekend he had travelled to Dubai.
Earlier this year, the European Union withdrew millions of dollars in aid from Gambia, shortly after Jammeh signed into law an act that could imprison homosexuals for life. In 2012, he was criticised for executing nine people being held in prison.
In recent years, he has frequently reshuffled senior military and civilian officials, a policy that has prevented potential rivals accruing power but has also stoked instability.