West African leaders will send troops into The Gambia if its longtime ruler, who lost in recent elections, does not step down next month, the president of the Economic Community of West African States said on Friday.
Marcel de Souza told reporters the regional bloc has chosen Senegal to lead any military intervention if President Yahya Jammeh does not hand over power.
"The deadline is January 19, when the mandate of Jammeh expires," de Souza said. "If he doesn't go, we have a standby force, which is already on alert. And it's this standby force that should be able to intervene to restore the will of the people."
This would not be the first time the bloc has intervened in a regional crisis. De Souza spoke to reporters in Bamako, Mali, even as ECOWAS continues to use diplomacy to get Jammeh to accept his December 1 defeat.
READ MORE: Defiant Gambian president refuses to step aside
Jammeh at first shocked Gambians by accepting the loss, but announced a week later that he had changed his mind. He said irregularities in the vote count made him question the win of Adama Barrow, a little-known businessman who was the opposition coalition candidate.
Troops seized the office of Gambia's electoral commission after Jammeh's later announcement, and he has mobilised troops across the tiny country that is almost completely surrounded by Senegal.
The UN Security Council this week urged Gambian security forces to "demonstrate maximum restraint" and again pressed Jammeh to accept defeat.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, called the troop deployment "deeply worrying, given the record of human rights violations in Gambia, including excessive use of force against demonstrators, arbitrary detention and deaths in custody, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees".
Jammeh took power in a coup 22 years ago.
Source: AP news agency