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Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - Dozens of military personnel and civilians were arrested and a large cache of weapons and explosives found after an alleged coup attempt in The Gambia, an intelligence source said Thursday.
The suspects have been interrogated and were being held in "four villas" in or near the tiny west African nation's capital Banjul, said a source close to Gambia's National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
A group of heavily armed men led by an army deserter attacked the presidential palace before dawn, but were repelled by forces loyal to Gambia's leader of 20-years, Yahya Jammeh.
The strongman, who was visiting Dubai at the time of the attack, blamed unidentified foreign dissidents and "terrorists" for the assault on his presidential palace on Tuesday.
"It is an attack by dissidents based in the US, Germany and UK," Jammeh said in a televised address Wednesday, denying it was an attempt to unseat him.
"This was not a coup. This was an attack by a terrorist group backed by some powers that I would not name."
Jammeh insisted that the armed forces "are very loyal" and that only former soldiers, including a senior commander, had taken part in the attack on his palace.
"No force can take this place and nobody can destabilise this country," he said. "Anybody who plans to attack this country, be ready, because you are going to die."
Investigators have allegedly seized the plan laying out the attack, in which the three suspects, including the alleged ringleader, were killed, according to a military officer.
One alleged conspirator also led authorities to "a large quantity of very sophisticated automatic weapons and explosives," in a shipping container disguised as second-hand clothing at Banjul's port, the source close to the NIA said.
Four officers suspected of participating in the attempt had taken refuge in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, a military source told AFP.
- 'Major risk of repression' -
Jammeh returned home to his palace overnight Wednesday from Dubai, where he had been on a private visit.
The 49-year-old, who seized power in a 1994 coup that ousted Gambia's founding leader Sir Dawda Jawara, has come under fire for serious human rights abuses, including repression of the media and the disappearance of rivals.
He claims to have foiled a succession of coup plots in the country and military sources have said there are fears he may now launch a purge.
The United States on Thursday denied it had any role in an apparent coup attempt, adding that it "strongly condemns any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means".
"The US government had no role in the events that took place in Banjul," a US State Department official said.
Neighbouring Senegal has also "strongly" condemned the apparent coup attempt, which it said was undertaken "by a group of insurgents".
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for a probe of the failed takeover and also urged the government and security forces in Banjul to "act in full respect of human rights".
A Dakar-based researcher, Gilles Yabi, warned Wednesday of a "major risk of repression extending beyond the military figures involved in the coup attempt".
"There are fears the regime could take advantage of the situation by blaming people who had nothing to do with it."
Gambia is a popular winter sun destination for European holidaymakers, especially from Britain.