(Adds admits killing of 50 migrants, paragraphs 2, 13)
BANJUL, July 23 (Reuters) - A Gambian army officer has testified that he and two colleagues shot dead journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004 on orders from then- President Yahya Jammeh, providing the first direct account of the previously unexplained killing.
Lieutenant Malick Jatta also admitted to involvement in the killings of more than 50 migrants in the following year.
Testifying late on Monday before a truth commission set up by President Adama Barrow’s government to investigate abuses under Jammeh, Jatta said he was a member of Jammeh’s elite guard, known as the “junglers”.
Hydara, a critic of Jammeh’s government and co-owner of the independent newspaper The Point, was killed on the outskirts of the West African country’s capital Banjul.
Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after losing a presidential election, bringing an end to 22 years in power marked by extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances as well as the pilfering of state assets.
He has not been reachable for comment since leaving Gambia, but supporters in his homeland have dismissed investigations of him as a witch hunt.
Jatta told the commission that on the day of Hydara’s killing, the leader of the mission, Captain Tumbul Tamba, Jatta and two other soldiers, Alieu Jen and Sana Manjang, picked up a car from Jammeh’s residence in the town of Kanifing.
“Tamba was speaking to Jammeh by phone,” said Jatta. “He was saying to him, ‘Yes Sir, Your Excellency.’”
“We met a car and Tamba, who was driving, said, ‘This is the idiot’(Hydara) and he ordered us to shoot,” Jatta said. “I shot at him...My colleagues Alieu Jeng and Sana Manjang also fired.”
Jatta said he was paid 50,000 dalasai ($1,000) for the hit. He said he only learned the following day that the target had been Hydara, who also worked for Agence France-Presse and Reporters Without Borders.
Tamba died several years ago. The whereabouts of Jeng and Manjang are not known and they could not be reached for comment.
Gambian investigators have accused Jammeh of a number of other crimes, including ordering the killing in 2005 of about 50 migrants who he feared had come to overthrow him. Most of their bodies were dumped down a well in neighbouring Senegal.
The victims included 44 Ghanaians, 10 Nigerians, two Senegalese, three Ivoirians and one Togolese, and were killed because security forces feared they were mercenaries coming to try to oust Jammeh.
Gambia’s justice minister said in March that Jammeh had personally stolen at least $362 million from the state during his presidency.
Members of Jammeh’s political party have denied such accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. (Reporting by Pap Saine Writing by Aaron Ross Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)