A deadline was extended for Gambia's embattled dictator, Yahya Jammeh, to give up power yesterday as regional mediators flew in to offer him one last chance to go peacefully.
The country's entrenched strongman has resisted more than a month of increasingly forceful demands to honour his original pledge to step down after losing December's elections.
Overnight on Thursday, he was warned that if he did not step down by noon yesterday, a detachment of Senegalese troops at the border would be authorised to roll into the capital, Banjul, to overthrow him by force.
That deadline was later extended as a final diplomatic delegation, led by the president of Guinea, Alpha Conde, and the president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, flew in for a last-ditch session of talks yesterday.
By late afternoon the talks were still ongoing, although diplomats insisted they were hopeful of a solution.
The delegation arrived a day after the man who won December's election, Adama Barrow, was sworn in as Gambia's new president at the Gambian embassy in neighbouring Senegal.
Despite Mr Barrow ordering the Gambian security forces to surrender immediately to his command, the military appeared to be divided over how to respond.
General Ousman Badjie, the chief of the army, said he would not fight the Senegalese troops, describing the impasse as a "political" problem. "We will welcome them with flowers and make them a cup of tea," he said.
However, Mr Badjie has switched loyalties at least once already, and in recent days his behaviour has become increasingly erratic.
A hard core of Mr Jammeh's presidential guard was last night still standing by him at his offices at State House in Banjul.
Mr Jammeh has received offers of asylum, including in Nigeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
He has rejected them, apparently in fear he could be extradited to face prosecution for human rights abuses.
Diplomats say he may be worried about facing a similar fate as Charles Taylor, Liberia's former warlord, who was granted asylum in Nigeria but then handed over years later to face a war crimes court over the slaughter in Liberia's civil war.
UN officials, including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were also involved in the talks.
The military operation was halted late on Thursday to give mediation a chance, and a midday deadline was extended yesterday as negotiations, which diplomats said were focusing on a deal to grant Mr Jammeh immunity from prosecution, continued.
"There is a real possibility this could work. I don't think he is going the (Saddam) Hussein route," a regional diplomat said, referring to the Iraqi leader who was arrested in 2003 following an invasion, tried and hanged.
A senior official from regional bloc Ecowas, under whose mandate the military operation was launched, said late on Thursday that there was no question that Mr Jammeh would be allowed to remain in Gambia, even if he agreed to step down.
Mr Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup, initially conceded defeat to Mr Barrow following a December 1 election before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed and demanding a new ballot.
Late on Thursday, he dissolved the government - half of whose members had already resigned - and pledged to name a new one. His estate - located just 1km from the border with Senegal, Gambia's sole neighbour, which surrounds it on three sides - was heavily fortified yesterday, witnesses said.
Ecowas said its intervention, dubbed Operation Restore Democracy, involved 7,000 troops and was backed by tanks and warplanes. Forces have already entered Gambia from the southeast, southwest and north. The size of Gambia's army is unclear, but estimates range from 800 to 2,500 soldiers. (© Daily Telegraph London)