Gambia leader urges peace at start of presidential campaign

Gambia leader urges peace at start of presidential campaign

Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh urged his supporters to abstain from violence Wednesday, as rights groups raised concerns over the arrest of journalists at the outset of a presidential election campaign.

The call came as one of the three detained members of the press -- photojournalist Alagie Manka, who was arrested last week for taking pictures of the president's supporters -- was released late Wednesday, officials said.

Human Rights Watch has expressed alarm over the detention of Momodou Sabally, the director-general of Gambia's state television and radio broadcaster, and his colleague Bakary Fatty.

"Intimidation and threats against the media need to stop for voters to be able to make informed decisions," said Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch.

A two-week campaign period began Wednesday with canvassing in rural areas, as electoral favourite Jammeh seeks his fifth term in power.

"Our campaign is focusing on peace and security and not for violence. Violence is like bushfire. You can know where it starts but you won't know where it will end," Jammeh told activists in a speech broadcast over state-owned Gambian radio and television.

"Therefore let us campaign peacefully, vote peacefully and then celebrate our victory," he added.

Jammeh, 51, took power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has run the tiny west African country with an iron fist ever since, surviving successive coup attempts.

His regime is regularly accused by rights groups of arranging the forcible disappearance and arbitrary arrest of opponents.

The three journalists had all been arrested by the Gambia's National Intelligence Agency (NIA) -- Sabally and Fatty for broadcasting images of the opposition when Jammeh's wife was due to appear.

"Alagie Manka has been released from our custody. We have not proffered any charges against him. He has not been maltreated by any of our agents," a senior NIA official told AFP late Wednesday.

Opposition parties have decided to join forces to field a single candidate, Adama Barrow, to take on Jammeh on December 1.

The only other candidate is a former ruling party MP, Mama Kandeh, who has been accused of being used to split opposition votes.

In a report released on November 2, Human Rights Watch said that intimidation of opposition parties, media repression and politicised security forces have "all but extinguished" any chance of a free and fair election in the Gambia.

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