Gunfire reported in Gambian capital
Heavy gunfire has been reported near the presidential palace in the west African nation of Gambia, raising the spectre of a coup attempt while the long-time ruler is out of the country.
Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 coup when he was 29, left the capital of Banjul for France on Saturday, state media reported.
Soldiers linked to his presidential guard are believed to be involved in the fighting, according to witnesses.
There was a total blackout at Gambia's state radio and television and the deputy of the National Intelligence Agency, Louis Gomez, refused to comment on the reports of a possible coup attempt.
Gambia is a small former British colony bordered by Senegal to the north and south. Human rights activists have long criticised Jammeh's regime as repressive, charging it targets political dissidents, journalists, gays and lesbians.
He is one of Africa's most vocal anti-gay leaders and has previously threatened to behead sexual minorities found in his country. The US government recently removed Gambia from a trade agreement in response to human rights abuses, including a law signed in October that imposes life imprisonment for some homosexual acts.
Jammeh was also condemned by activists in 2007 after he insisted that HIV-positive patients stop taking their antiretroviral medications, claiming he could cure them with a herbal body rub and bananas.
A statement from Kalidu Bayo, the secretary-general and head of the civil service, said: "Contrary to rumours being circulated, peace and calm continue to prevail in the Gambia."
During his campaign for the last election in 2011, Jammeh vowed that only God - and not a vote or a coup - could shake his grip on power.