Troops from a regionwide military force moved Sunday into Gambia's capital, Banjul, where they were greeted by cheering throngs, hours after defeated leader Yahya Jammeh fled into exile.
The regional force is expected to clear the way for the return of the country's newly elected President Adama Barrow, who earlier took refuge in nearby Senegal when Jammeh refused to leave office. Barrow was sworn in Thursday at a ceremony in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
No time frame had been announced by late Sunday for Barrow's return, but a spokesman told reporters it would be "as soon as possible." Marcel Alain de Souza said parts of Gambia's security forces needed to be "immobilized" ahead of Barrow's return.
A second spokesman told reporters in Banjul that the capital would be inspected Monday to determine whether security is adequate for Barrow's safe return to the country of 1.5 million residents.
The U.S. State Department welcomed "the ongoing peaceful transition of power in Gambia," and congratulated Barrow on his inauguration. Acting spokesman Mark Toner also praised "the restraint shown by the Gambian people over the past weeks," as Jammeh struggled unsuccessfully to maintain his grip on power.
Top aide cites looted bank accounts
Separately on Sunday, a top adviser to Barrow, speaking in Senegal, alleged that Jammeh looted government bank accounts in the last days of his rule.
Mai Ahmad Fatty told reporters the coffers in his tiny nation are, in his words, "virtually empty." He said the finance ministry and Gambia's Central Bank had confirmed that more than $11 million went missing in the past two weeks alone.
Fatty also said he confirmed that a cargo plane from Chad had moved luxury goods, including an unknown number of vehicles, out of the country on Jammeh's behalf in the final hours of his rule.
By late Sunday, Jammeh was reported in Equatorial Guinea, which is not a member of the regional security grouping that spearheaded the planned intervention.
Barrow promises change
Barrow reaffirmed Sunday his plans to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to shed light on widely alleged human rights abuses during Jammeh's rule, which began in 1994 when he seized power in a bloodless coup. Human rights activists have alleged those abuses included arbitrary detentions, torture and the killings of some opponents.
"Twenty-two years is a long time. People need to know the truth," he told VOA in an interview Sunday from the Senegalese capital.
The president said he has rejected proposals that would have allowed Jammeh to remain in Gambia after stepping down. Without addressing security or political issues arising from Jammeh's continued presence in the country, Barrow said the new government could not guarantee Jammeh's safety if he stayed.
He also said he will not retain Jammeh's Cabinet ministers and will work to improve the professionalism of Gambian security forces and the army.
Departure sparked celebrations in Banjul
Early last week, Jammeh declared a national state of emergency in a last-ditch effort to hold on to power. He dissolved his Cabinet while the National Assembly extended his term of office by three months.
But by Friday, as pressure mounted, he was negotiating with the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania before agreeing to step down. Sources said the talks centered on where Jammeh would live and whether he would be granted amnesty for alleged crimes committed during his rule.
Barrow, a property developer, celebrated as it became clear on Friday that Jammeh's departure was imminent.
"The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good," Barrow said in Dakar as he prepared to return to his homeland.
Jubilant Gambians took to the streets of the capital Sunday as the West African military force entered the capital and took control of the presidential palace, the seat of power during Jammeh's two decade authoritarian rule.