By Cheikh Sadibou Mane
BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambians voted on Thursday in the first serious electoral challenge to President Yahya Jammeh, who has said only Allah can remove him from office and once claimed he would rule the tiny riverside West African nation for "a billion years".
Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup, has made headlines by claiming to have a herbal cure for AIDS that only works on Thursdays, declaring Gambia an Islamic republic and threatening to slit the throats of practicing homosexuals.
Dressed in flowing white robes, carrying strings of prayer beads and surrounded by soldiers, Jammeh voted in the capital Banjul without speaking to reporters.
Nearby, in the sleepy, palm-fringed streets, residents formed long lines outside polling stations where they cast ballots by dropping marbles into drums painted green, silver and purple for the three candidates, each with his picture on. Gambian officials say the system is designed to avoid spoiled ballots and to simplify the process for illiterate voters.
European Union observers have been barred from monitoring the polls; African Union observers have been admitted.
Britain, whose nationals swarm to the former colony's white-sand beaches in search of winter sun, advised its tourists on Thursday that international calls had been blocked in an apparent attempt to control scrutiny of elections.
A diplomatic source said the National Intelligence Agency had informed them that Internet and phone outages would last until Sunday.
Activist Jeggan Grey Johnson with Open Society Foundation called the outages a "deliberate attempt by the incumbent to control any sort of information sharing". Gambia's communications minister could not be reached for comment.
RARE OPPOSITION CHALLENGE
Rallies for the main opposition challenger, businessman Adama Barrow, have attracted crowds of thousands - a rare show of defiance of a leader who rights groups say frequently imprisons and tortures opposition figures.
Barrow has promised to revive Gambia's economy, one of the region's most sluggish, end widespread human rights abuses and to step down after three years as a boost to democracy.
Jammeh's supporters deny allegations of atrocities and he frequently rails against Western interference in African internal affairs.
The president has touted his record on healthcare and has won support among women owing to alleged herbal cures for infertility that he personally administers in the grounds of State House. He drew huge crowds during rallies across Gambia.
Gambia made headlines recently by withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, calling it the "Infamous Caucasian Court". Gambia also withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2013.
"My presidency and power are in the hands of Allah and only Allah can take it from me," Jammeh said earlier this week.
In April, small protests in Banjul calling for electoral reform led to dozens of arrests, including that of the leader of the main UDP opposition party, Ousainu Darboe.
Two UDP members have since died in custody; others remain in jail.
(Writing and additional reporting by Emma Farge and Edward McAllister in Dakar; Editing by Tim Cocks and Mark Trevelyan)