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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Nigeria’s president was leading a regional delegation to Gambia in a last-ditch attempt Friday to persuade its longtime leader to step down and allow his rival’s inauguration next week.

Fears, meanwhile, are growing that the impasse over President Yahya Jammeh’s status could turn violent.

The African Union announced it will cease to recognize Jammeh as Gambia’s legitimate leader as of Thursday, when his mandate expires. The decision by the AU’s Peace and Security Council warns Jammeh of serious consequences if his actions lead to the “loss of innocent lives” and calls on Gambia’s security forces to exercise restraint.

As the international community looks for a peaceful way out of the crisis in the West African nation, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been authorized to offer Jammeh asylum, if necessary, during Friday’s visit.

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But the West African regional bloc also has a military force on standby to intervene if Jammeh does not step down. A Nigerian army memo, dated Wednesday and seen by The Associated Press, orders officers to prepare a battalion of 800 troops for a possible military intervention in Gambia.

Jammeh at first accepted his Dec. 1 election loss, even making a telephone call to concede on national television, but then changed his mind and declared that “only Allah” can deny him victory. His party is now contesting the result in court.

President-elect Adama Barrow has renewed his offer to talk with Jammeh, telling the BBC that “I’ll be very willing to talk to him directly.”

Gambia’s Supreme Court, short of judges, has said it might not be able to consider the vote challenge until May, and Jammeh says Gambia should await its decision.

Jammeh took power in a coup in 1994 and is accused of gross human rights violations including arbitrary detentions, torture and the killings of opponents in this tiny country of 1.9 million people that is nearly surrounded by Senegal.

Jammeh might be wary of a Nigerian promise of safe haven.

Nigeria offered asylum to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in 2003 to help end the civil war he started in 1989, but it was forced by international pressure to hand Taylor over in 2006 for trial for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Taylor was convicted in 2013 and is serving a 50-year sentence in a British prison.


AP writer Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria contributed.