BANJUL (Reuters) - British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said on Saturday he was "deeply concerned" by reports Gambia had executed nine prisoners and was preparing to execute others.
The tiny West African country declined late on Friday to confirm or deny an Amnesty International report saying nine of its 47 death row inmates were killed overnight Thursday.
"I am deeply concerned over reports that nine prisoners on death row in The Gambia have been executed following comments by President (Yahya) Jammeh that all death row prisoners would now be executed," Burt said. "I urge the Gambian authorities to halt any further executions."
President Jammeh said in a speech on Monday that he planned to execute all of the country's death row inmates by mid-September "to ensure that criminals get what they deserve", drawing condemnation from the African Union.
Gambia, a former British colony popular with sun-seeking European tourists has earned a reputation for human rights abuses. But it has not executed anyone in more than 25 years.
Amnesty said in a press release issued on Friday it had "credible reports" that nine people, including two Senegalese nationals, were removed from their prison cells overnight Thursday and executed. Three of the reported executed were sentenced for treason, it said.
"The decision of the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh to execute nine prisoners after more than a quarter of a century without execution would be a giant leap backwards," said Paule Rigaud, Amnesty International's Africa deputy director.
Gambia's presidency issued a statement late on Friday defending the country's death penalty laws and dismissing "widespread rumors and speculation", but which fell short of confirming or denying the Amnesty report.
A presidency official was not immediately available to comment further on Saturday.
(Reporting by Pap Saine in Banjul, Richard Valdmanis in Dakar and Tim Castle in London; Writing by Richard Valdmanis, Editing by Rosalind Russell)