Members of the regional ECOWAS force keep guard at Presidence palace in Banjul, Gambia January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

BANJUL – Soldiers from West African regional force entered Gambia’s presidential compound, State House, on Sunday, a witness said, in an operation launched to allow new President Adama Barrow to assume office.

Yahya Jammeh, who ruled Gambia for 22 years and refused to accept his defeat in an election last month, fled the country late on Saturday.

Thousands of Gambians sought asylum abroad over the years. An additional 45,000 people fled to Senegal amid growing fears of unrest in the wake of last month’s election, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds of Gambians carrying sacks, suitcases and cooking pots began returning by ferry from Senegal’s Casamance region on Sunday.

Hawa Jagne, 22, a cloth trader, hugged her sister Fama as she stepped off the boat.

“I’m so relieved to see her,” Jagne said. “Everyone is free. You can do whatever you want, because this is a democratic country. You can express yourself. No one can kill you.”

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