British holidaymakers told of a “chaotic” scramble to get on flights out of Africa when they landed home from crisis-torn Gambia.
Around 1,000 sun seekers on Thomas Cook packages were ordered to pack their bags and head for the airport after the Foreign Office (FCO) issued an alert late on Tuesday.
Gambia faces the threat of military action by regional forces after its unseated president, Yahya Jammeh, refused to hand over power to his successor by midnight last night.
Holidaymakers described confusion before being greeted by a “nightmare” situation at the airport in the country’s capital, Banjul, when they arrived to board flights alongside desperate locals on Wednesday.
“People were crying and panicking. It was just chaos,” said Sara Wilkins, from Church Stretton, Shropshire, as she arrived back at Manchester Airport.
Thomas Cook deployed four extra flights alongside a scheduled service on Wednesday to return its 985 package holiday customers.
It is believed around 2,500 Britons were in Gambia when the FCO issued its warning.
Elicia Gardner, a teacher at Portland School, Stoke-on-Trent, had been on a week’s volunteering trip in a school with three pupils and another teacher.
“A lot of people out there are quite worried, and we are worried for our friends out there, the Gambian people who were taking care of us while we were out there,” she said.
Among the arrivals at Manchester airport was Gambian Ebrima Jagne, a textile engineer in Burnley, Lancashire.
Mr Jagne was comforted by fellow passengers as he wept out of concern for his wife, Haddytouray, and their three-month-old daughter, Ajiamina Jane, who he is trying to get out of the country.
He said everyone in the country felt “unsafe” and “on edge ... because you don’t know what’s going to come next”.
“I cannot get my daughter out,” he added. “I’m desperate. It’s not easy at all when I leave my wife there and daughter.”
Since the disputed election in December, the FCO advised Britons travelling to Gambia to follow events closely.
Mr Jammeh, who has been president for 22 years, has refused to cede power to rival Adama Barrow.
The FCO warned of a growing risk of unrest, including the shutting of the airport, as Wednesday’s scheduled power handover approached.
When Mr Jammeh declared a 90-day national state of emergency on Tuesday, British officials advised against all non-essential travel to the country.
They have since warned against all travel to Banjul.
However, some holidaymakers said they were unaware of the growing risk of unrest.
Mrs Wilkins said: “We weren’t getting any proper communication.
“Then I rang Thomas Cook again this morning [Wednesday] and they said, ‘Pack your bags, you’ve got to go’.
“We just panicked, just threw everything in a case and just got out of there basically.”
Pensioner Sue Thrower, from Doncaster, said she found out about the evacuation through a friend she met on holiday.
Mrs Thrower said: “If it hadn’t of been for that young woman of 28 with her smartphone talking to her mum back home, we wouldn’t have known we had to pack after breakfast this morning and be ready and we were ready.”
Ralph Newton, from Nottingham, said: “We didn’t get communication until this morning, 9am, you’ve got to leave, the reps are coming at 10am.
“No reps came, the coaches came and then it was just a bit of chaos, but they did their best at the airport.”