Gambia's new President Adama Barrow demanded "loyalty" from the armed forces Thursday as he took the oath of office in Senegal in a standoff with Yahya Jammeh, the longtime leader refusing to step down after his election defeat.
Dressed all in white, 51-year-old Barrow waved to crowds before being sworn in at The Gambia's embassy in Senegal's capital Dakar.
"This is a victory of the Gambian nation. Our flag will now fly high among those of the most democratic nations of the world," he said.
The inauguration took place as a regional military force massed on the Senegal-Gambia border ahead of a UN Security Council meeting to vote on West African efforts to ensure a transfer of power.
"I command the chief of defence staff and officers of high command to demonstrate their loyalty to me as commander in chief without any delay," Barrow said.
"I command all members of the armed forces to remain in their barracks, those found wanting or in possession of firearms without my order will be considered rebels."
Barrow, an opposition coalition candidate, won the December 1 election in a surprise victory over Jammeh, who had ruled the former British colony since taking power in a coup in 1994 and has rejected international pressure to leave office.
Nigerian jets overflew The Gambia, officials said in Abuja, as troops from Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria readied for a possible intervention against Jammeh, whose mandate expired at midnight (0000 GMT).
Shops were shuttered and streets quiet in and around the capital Banjul, and tour operators evacuated hundreds more tourists from the tiny country's popular beach resorts.
But Barrow supporters were jubilant.
"For the last 22 years we were living under a state of dictatorship," Corra Kah said in Banjul as he watched the inauguration. "Now we are free".
In off the cuff remarks, army chief Ousman Badjie insisted his soldiers would not get involved in a "political dispute" or prevent foreign forces from entering the west African nation.
Barrow, a real-estate agent turned politician, flew to Senegal on January 15 after weeks of rising tension over Jammeh's stance.
Jammeh initially acknowledged Barrow as the victor but later rejected the result.
He then attempted to block Barrow's inauguration with a court ruling and by declaring a state of emergency this week.
A senior member of Barrow's opposition coalition, Isatou Touray, welcomed the army chief's declaration.
"That's a very positive outlook from him, given that Jammeh's regime is done," Touray told AFP.
"We don't have to risk the lives of innocent citizens."
In remarks at a hotel restaurant late Wednesday, Badjie said he loved his men and would not risk their lives in a "stupid fight," witnesses said.
Arriving back from The Gambia at Manchester airport in England, several passengers could be seen comforting a Gambian national and UK resident who had tried unsuccessfully to get his family out.
Ebrima Jajne described the situation as "really scary for everybody... because this president (Jammeh) doesn't want to step down and people are fleeing."
Tourist Ralph Newton said local residents had done what they could to reassure visitors, despite the threat to themselves.
"All the locals were just worried... They said it's a bad time for us but you'll be alright... It'll be us they come for, if they come for anybody."
Despite the build-up along the border, an army source told AFP that Senegalese troops were "not yet" present on Gambian soil.
Eyes on border
After 11th-hour talks in Banjul, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz held a meeting with Barrow also attended by Senegal's President Macky Sall, the private RFM radio station reported.
It was not clear whether the Mauritanian leader had secured a deal or made an asylum offer to Jammeh.
The last-minute intervention came after several unsuccessful attempts at diplomacy by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
Mauritania is not part of Ecowas and diplomats have previously reached out to the conservative desert nation in hopes of brokering a deal with Jammeh.
Ecowas heads the regional force massing on Gambian-Senegalese border.
Speaking to AFP at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty hailed the Ecowas efforts to resolve the crisis.
"ECOWAS has stood up, and they don't always do that," he said.
"It's an important message to Jammeh, both from the people of The Gambia, the people of Africa, and from neighbouring states, that it's not business as usual anymore."