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Thousands of Britons to be flown home from Gambia amid political unrest

Thousands of UK holidaymakers in The Gambia are to be flown home amid growing concerns about political unrest in the west African nation.

Travel trade organisation Abta estimated there are around 2,000 people on package holidays in the country, with more than 1,500 others on flight-only trips.

The Foreign Office (FCO) is urging UK citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to the winter sun destination.

Thomas Cook triggered contingency plans to fly home its 985 package holiday customers over the next 48 hours, while about 2,500 flight-only travellers will be offered "the earliest possible flight availability" to return to the UK.

The Gambia Experience, part of Hampshire-based travel firm Serenity Holidays, said it is contacting its 225 package holiday customers and 109 flight-only customers in the country to provide details of their repatriation options.

A 90-day state of emergency has been declared in The Gambia, where political deadlock has led to a "high" risk of military intervention and civil disturbance, the FCO said.

The international airport in the capital Banjul could be closed "at short notice", according to the travel advice.

The Gambia's president, Yahya Jammeh, has refused to hand over power after losing an election and on Tuesday banned "acts of disobedience" while urging security forces to maintain order.

A group of west African nations has threatened to take military action if Mr Jammeh does not cede power to his successor, Adama Barrow, this week.

Abta advised British tourists on package holidays to contact their tour operator to arrange return flights, while anyone who has travelled independently should speak to their airline.

People with future bookings should contact their travel company to discuss the options.

It is understood that at least one flight carrying British holidaymakers flew to The Gambia as recently as Tuesday morning.

Thomas Cook said a flight scheduled to fly from Manchester to The Gambia on Wednesday will depart without customers and bring the first groups of holidaymakers home.

Another four flights have been arranged from Banjul back to the UK on Wednesday - two to Manchester and two to Gatwick.

The first flight is due to land in Manchester at 6.30pm.

A Thomas Cook spokesman said its staff will be flying to the country to assist on Wednesday.

The Gambia's popularity as a winter sun destination has grown in recent years, with holidaymakers drawn to its white sandy beaches and tropical climate, and affordable deals.

However the country was thrown into political crisis in December when Mr Jammeh reneged on his acceptance of electoral defeat.

Mr Barrow, the country's president-elect, left the country as the incumbent challenged the result in the courts.

The FCO said it has received reports that the sitting government has closed down opposition radio stations and made politically motivated arrests.

The Economic Community of West African States has said it may intervene, including taking possible military action, if Mr Jammeh does not step down by the scheduled handover date of January 18/19.

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