BANJUL, Jan 18 (Reuters) - British tour operator Thomas Cook started evacuating nearly 1,000 holidaymakers from Gambia on Wednesday after President Yahya Jammeh declared a state of emergency on his final day in office, increasing the chances of civil unrest.
In a statement on its website, Thomas Cook said it had activated its contingency plans and was laying on extra flights in the next 48 hours to remove 985 package tour customers from the tiny West African nation.
It was also trying to contact a further 2,500 'flight only' tourists in Gambia to arrange for their departure on the earliest available flight, it said.
Jammeh, who seized power in a coup 22 years ago, lost a December election to Adama Barrow, who once worked as a security guard at a shop in north London, but has refused to recognise the result.
Jammeh is one of Africa's most capricious and ruthless autocrats who has resorted to torturing or killing perceived opponents, according to human rights groups.
Despite the reputation of its leader, Gambia's Atlantic ocean beaches are popular with European holidaymakers seeking winter sun, sea and sand.
A senior Nigerian military source said this week the ECOWAS regional bloc was getting ready to remove Jammeh by force if he refused to hand over to Barrow by a Jan. 19 deadline determined by the constitution.
Barrow is currently in neighbouring Senegal, fuelling speculation that he may be sworn in as President at the Gambian embassy in Dakar - technically Gambian soil.
Hundreds of Gambians have also been fleeing over the border to Senegal in the last few days, fearing civil unrest. (Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Dominic Evans)