- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Gambia denies firing

On the eve of a Washington visit by the president of Gambia, the West African nation’s embassy here faced a diplomatic embarrassment.

The Independent newspaper in the capital, Banjul, reported that President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh two weeks ago fired Essa Bokarr Sey, Gambia’s ambassador to the United States for the past nine months.

An African Web site (http://allafrica.com) faxed the article to The Washington Times and other news outlets here.

However, the Gambian Embassy yesterday said the report is false and that Mr. Sey had been recalled routinely to Banjul for another assignment.

The opposition newspaper cited what it said was a message Mr. Sey posted on the GambiaPost and Gambia-L Internet sites. Mr. Sey said he was ordered to “hand over” the embassy with “immediate effect.” He called his dismissal a recall but hinted it had “political connotations.”

“I was always being monitored because of the open-door policy that I had with all Gambians,” he said, in an apparent reference to opponents of the Gambian government in the United States.

Mr. Sey discounted his dismissal because, he said, he already had “picked up a consultancy job in Detroit.” Mr. Sey could not be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the embassy said the report is wrong on every account.

“There is no way he was fired. He is still in the government,” the spokesman said. “He was recalled. He might be posted somewhere else.”

Before his Washington assignment, Mr. Sey was Gambia’s ambassador to Taiwan, where he also served nine months, the spokesman said.

Lena Manga Sagnia Seck, the deputy chief of mission, is serving as charge d’affaires in the absence of an accredited ambassador.

Mr. Jammeh is due to attend the biannual U.S.-Africa Business Summit today, along with 12 other African presidents and prime ministers. The summit is organized by the Corporate Council on Africa.

Although Mr. Jammeh faces fierce opposition in Gambia and among Gambian expatriates, he generally is seen as a democratically elected leader who is improving the lives of the country’s 1.3 million citizens.

The State Department says his government “generally respected the human rights of its citizens” but criticized Mr. Jammeh for some restrictions on press freedom.

The embassy said Mr. Jammeh has improved health and education in Gambia. His government has opened 10 new hospitals and 65 middle and high schools, up from only one high school under the previous government. The country now has 350 doctors, while there were only 10 before his term.

“The president is a role model for peace,” the embassy spokesman said, adding that Mr. Jammeh’s government has accepted 30,000 refugees from conflicts in other West African nations.

Bulgaria wants bases

Bulgaria’s finance minister is in Washington to learn more about plans to move U.S. defenses in Europe to the east.

Milen Velchev will press the United States to make Iraq pay back $1.7 billion in debt, incurred during the 1970s and 1980s, to the Eastern European country and to sign a treaty with the United States ending double taxation of people and companies of both countries.

“We are quite eager to host U.S. military bases in Bulgaria. In the new geopolitical situation, it does make increasing sense to move toward the wing of the large NATO alliance,” he told our correspondent Zachary A. Goldfarb yesterday.

“We are geographically in the proximity of the conflict area, though we’re not directly on the border with Iraq.”

Bulgaria won friends in the Bush administration this year when it backed the war with Iraq as a temporary member of the U.N. Security Council. Bulgaria is planning to send 500 troops to Iraq, while preparing itself to enter NATO next year and the European Union in 2007.

“We are allies. We will be allies,” Mr. Velchev said. “Our relations with the United States have never been stronger.”

Mr. Velchev, who is U.S.-educated, will meet with officials from the defense, Treasury and state departments and the defense industry.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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