Defeated Gambia leader Yahya Jammeh begins political exile
Gambia's defeated leader Yahya Jammeh and his family have headed into political exile, ending a 22-year reign of fear and a post-election political stand-off which threatened to spiral into military action.
As he mounted the stairs to his plane, Mr Jammeh turned to the crowd, kissed his Koran and waved one last time to supporters, including soldiers who cried at his departure.
The flight came almost 24 hours after he announced on state television he was ceding power in response to mounting international pressure calling for his removal.
The incoming president, Adama Barrow, has said Mr Jammeh would fly to Guinea, though that might not be his final destination.
Though tens of thousands of Gambians had fled the country during his rule, Jammeh supporters flocked to the airport to see him walk the red carpet to his plane.
Mr Barrow defeated Mr Jammeh in the December elections, but Mr Jammeh contested the results as calls grew for him to be prosecuted for alleged abuses during his time in power.
A regional force had been poised to force out Mr Jammeh if last-ditch diplomatic efforts failed.
The situation became so tense that Mr Barrow had to be inaugurated in neighbouring Senegal at the Gambian Embassy. He said he would return to Gambia once it is "clear" and a security sweep is completed.
Mr Jammeh's announcement ended ending hours of last-minute negotiations with the leaders of Guinea and Mauritania.
"We believe he'll go to Guinea, but we are yet to confirm 100 percent, but that's what we believe," Mr Barrow said.
As Mr Jammeh prepared to leave the country after more than two decades in power, human rights activists demanded that he be held accountable for alleged abuses, including torture and detention of opponents.
It was those concerns about prosecution that led the famously mercurial Mr Jammeh to challenge the December election results, just days after shocking Gambians by conceding his loss to Mr Barrow.
Mr Jammeh once vowed to rule for a billion years. His agreement to step down has brought an end to the political crisis in this nation of 1.9 million, which has promoted itself to European tourists as "the Smiling Coast of Africa".
Critics of Mr Jammeh insisted he should not be given any kind of amnesty.
Jeggan Bahoum, of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in Gambia, said: "Jammeh came as a pauper bearing guns. He should leave as a disrobed despot. The properties he seeks to protect belong to Gambians and Gambia, and he must not be allowed to take them with him. He must leave our country without conditionalities."
An online petition urged that Mr Jammeh should not be granted asylum and should instead be arrested. Mr Barrow, though, cautioned that this was premature.
"We aren't talking about prosecution here, we are talking about getting a truth and reconciliation commission," he said. "Before you can act, you have to get the truth, to get the facts together."
Mr Jammeh, who first seized power in a 1994 coup, had been holed up in recent days in his official residence in Banjul, increasingly isolated as he was abandoned by his security forces and several Cabinet members.
The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, had pledged to remove Mr Jammeh by force if he did not step down. The group assembled a multinational military force including tanks that rolled into Gambia on Thursday. The force moved in after Mr Barrow's inauguration and a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council supporting the regional efforts.
Mr Jammeh's announcement to relinquish power is a good first step, said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa.
He said: "For the Gambia to truly move on, president Barrow must reside in State House and begin the task of governing. In an ideal scenario, Jammeh will also face justice for the many crimes he has committed since 1994."