BRUSSELS/BANJUL The European Union called on Gambia on Sunday to stop executing death row inmates and said the bloc would come up with a quick but unspecified response to executions reported last week.
Gambia has neither confirmed nor denied an Amnesty International report saying that nine of its 47 death row inmates had been executed overnight on Thursday. An official in the president's office said a statement would be made on Monday.
But a leading opposition figure said those reported to have been executed should be paraded on television if they were still alive while international sanctions should be imposed on the West African state's leadership if they had been executed.
President Yahya Jammeh, whose rights record has long been criticized since he seized power in 1994, said in a speech last Monday that he planned to execute all the country's death row inmates by mid-September.
"I strongly condemn the executions which have reportedly taken place on Thursday 23 August 2012, following President Jammeh's stated intention to carry out all death penalties before mid-September," EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
"I demand the immediate halt of the executions," she added.
The European Union has previously condemned death sentences passed in Gambia, but Sunday's statement went further by indicating that action might follow.
"In light of these executions, the European Union will urgently consider an appropriate response," Ashton said. She reminded Gambia of a commitment to respect human rights in an accord between the bloc and a number of African countries.
The EU opposes the death penalty worldwide and often issues statements asking countries to halt executions, but the language it used in Sunday's statement was far stronger than usual, showing particular concern over the Gambian executions.
The EU plans to give Gambia 65.4 million euros from 2008 to 2013 under a European Development Fund program. The aid funds projects in areas such as infrastructure and governance.
Jammeh's speech - in which he said the executions would "ensure that criminals get what they deserve" - has already drawn condemnation from the African Union and Britain.
Amnesty said in a press release on Friday it had "credible reports" that nine people, including two Senegalese nationals, were executed overnight on Thursday. Three of those reported to have been executed had been sentenced for treason, it said.
Gambia's presidency issued a statement late on Friday defending its use of the death penalty and dismissing "widespread rumors and speculation", but did not confirm or deny the Amnesty report.
"It is in the interest of the nation that the government should issue an unambiguous statement to clear the air," said Ousainou Darboe, leader of the opposition UDP party.
"If the government denies that any execution has taken place, it should go further and parade all those on death row on TV for their families and the public to see them. If the execution has indeed taken place, the international community should consider imposing travel bans on Jammeh and his ministers," he added.
Despite its poor rights record, Gambia is a popular destination for sun-seeking British tourists.
(Editing by David Lewis, editing by Tim Pearce)