Gambia searches Jammeh's palaces for missing millions

KANILAI, Gambia (Reuters) - In a warehouse on the sprawling country estate of Gambia's exiled former leader, Yahya Jammeh, silver platters pile up beside dusty crates of empty champagne bottles with labels commemorating his 1994 coup.

A bailiff picks through the boxes and scribbles down notes - the start of what the new government says is a search for tens of millions of dollars of looted assets, an investigation that Jammeh's supporters have dismissed as a witch-hunt.

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A U.S. official in Banjul said Washington was planning to help and government staff say they are counting on World Bank assistance. The size of the Kanilai estate - just a fraction of Jammeh's holdings according to the government official leading the tour - shows the scale of the task ahead.

"We suspect most of the things were taken away before he left - the treasure, possibly weapons and most of the vehicles," said the bailiff from Gambia's high court, Modou Moussa Ceesay, taking an inventory of Jammeh's possessions.

The former president - accused by opponents and rights groups of widespread violations and corruption - fled Gambia in January as regional forces descended on the capital Banjul to enforce the results of an election he lost.

He has not commented on the investigation from his new base in Equatorial Guinea. His still strong band of supporters left behind in the tiny West African state have called the plunder hunt a case of victor's justice.

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Inside the estate of an exiled former leader
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Inside the estate of an exiled former leader
A dusty champagne bottle from an edition commemorating the day former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh came to power is seen in his estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
A Gambian soldier plays the piano inside a house in former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
Moluccan Cockatoos peer out of a cage in former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
Cattle amble towards an archway at the entrance of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
Gambian Major YMS Darboe stands in front of a pile of empty cardboard boxes stored in a warehouse in former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� personal estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
Three planes of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh are seen through a barbed wire fence at the Banjul airport, Gambia July 2, 2017. Picture taken July 2, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
Soldiers pull open the doors to a warehouse inside former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� personal estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
Security guards for a Gambian delegation visiting former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� estate stand in front of an abandoned tank in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
A soldier is pictured in front of an archway at the entrance of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh� estate in Kanilai, Gambia July 1, 2017. Picture taken July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Emma Farge
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TANKS, ZEBRAS, CAMELS

Kanilai was Jammeh's birthplace and is now his most elaborate estate - complete with farm, mosque, tanks, multiple residences, jungle warfare training camp and vast private safari park housing exotic parrots, zebras, hyenas and camels.

Building materials lie next to an unfinished new palace, near a billboard of a smiling Jammeh embracing his family.

The justice ministry team inspected it all under the gaze of a group of Jammeh's relatives and supporters, all wearing the green T-shirts of his APRC party. One of them stuck up his middle finger at the visiting delegation.

APRC head, Fabakary Tombong Jatta, later told Reuters he had no knowledge of any embezzlement of state funds or foreign assets owned by Jammeh.

"These people just want anything with any link to Jammeh and that's not fair," he said, calling the investigation "witch-hunting".

New President Adama Barrow took office in January and set up a task force to track down Jammeh's assets in May. "Most of the paper trails are available," Gambia's Solicitor General Cherno Marenah said.

But following those paper trails is proving time consuming. Investigators only made their first visit to the heavily fortified estate this month.

Finance minister Amadou Sanneh last month said $100 million - more than a third of the annual budget - had been siphoned from state firms, in the riverside nation, nearly half of whose 1.8 million people live in poverty.

A list of Jammeh assets temporarily seized by the government pending a court order showed 14 businesses in everything from media, insurance to farming.

Sanneh said the government planned to sell four of Jammeh's presidential planes.

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Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh
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Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh
Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh speaks to the United Nations General Assembly September 24. The 54th session of the General Assembly met at U.N. headquarters in New York. RFS/RC
Cuban President Fidel Castro welcomes the President of Gambia Yahya Jammeh to Havana April 6. Jammeh is on a four-day official visit to the communist-ruled island to discuss bilateral ties and cooperation. PF/SV
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak (L) listens to his Gambia's counterpart Yahya Jammeh during the Plenary session of the Franco-African summit in Paris, November 27. A record 35 African heads of State and high-level representatives of another 14 countries are attending the two-day summit. ??�
Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh speaks during the 60th General Assembly at the United Nations in New York, September 19, 2005.
Gambian President Yahya Jenneh gestures during a speech at his final campaign rally in the capital Banjul, September 20, 2006. Gambia holds presidential elections on Friday which incumbent leader Yahya Jammeh hopes will hand him five more years at the head of continental Africa's smallest state. Picture taken September 20, 2006. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (GAMBIA)
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh holds up a Koran while speaking to the media after casting his ballot in the presidential elections in Banjul September 22, 2006. Voters in the tiny West African nation of Gambia went to the polls on Friday in a presidential election widely expected to extend the iron-fisted rule of incumbent Jammeh for a third elected term. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (GAMBIA)
Raul Castro (R), head of Cuba's armed forces and brother of Cuba's President Fidel Castro, reviews an honor guard with Gambia's President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh at the Revolution Palace in Havana May 10, 2007. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa (CUBA)
Gambia's President Al Hadji Yahya Jammeh attends the plenary session of the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island September 27, 2009. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez proposed on Sunday that South American and African nations unite to create a cross-continental mining corporation to keep control of their resources. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA POLITICS)
Al Hadji Yahya Jammeh, President of the Republic of the Gambia, addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh arrives to the opening of the 48th ordinary session of ECOWAS Authority of Head of States and Government in Abuja, Nigeria December 16, 2015 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, who is also a presidential candidate for the Alliance for Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction (APRC), smiles during a rally in Banjul, Gambia, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon
Former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh arrives at the airport before flying into exile from Gambia, January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh boards a private jet before departing Banjul airport, Gambia January 21, 2017 into exile. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
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"TOO MUCH FOR ONE MAN"

Marenah said investigators were also looking into assets in Morocco and the United States, where one U.S. official told Reuters Jammeh owned property in Potomac, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C.

An official in the U.S. embassy in Banjul confirmed that they were collaborating with the Gambian government on how to assist with the recovery efforts.

The World Bank would help Gambia through its Stolen Assets Recovery Programme, Marenah said, though the bank declined to comment.

Back at Kanilai, once a small village near the border with Senegal, soldiers lead a tour of Jammeh's main residences.

The screeches of three of his abandoned parrots echo inside an empty ballroom hanging with crystal chandeliers.

One of the pictures hanging on the wall shows a young Jammeh holding a staff some Gambians thought gave him mystical powers - he long said he had developed a secret cure for AIDS.

A pile of paperwork including an old business document from a visiting Royal Dutch Shell delegation sits near a bookshelf holding Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's memoir, "The Downing Street Years".

At the entrance to another residence, soldiers swap jokes and take turns playing on a grand piano and shooting pool next to a fake Christmas tree.

"It's too much for one man," mutters one of them as the delegation tours the rooms.

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