If you don't want your children to end up as refugees abroad, vote for me - Gambia's Jammeh
President Yahya Jammeh said Friday Gambians who want to halt an exodus of migrants to the West should vote for him in a December 1 election widely expected to return him to power.
Gambians represent the largest group of migrant arrivals to Italy per capita according to the International Organization for Migration.
Jammeh's own former interior minister Ousman Sonko is currently seeking asylum in Sweden after being fired in September.
During a raucous rally of several thousand in the village of Brikama, south of the capital Banjul, the president called on Gambians to return him to a fifth term -- but also to stay in their country.
"Those that are grateful, Allah-fearing people, progressive people, those who want to worship the Almighty Allah in peace, those who do not want our children to end up in refugee camps, they know who to vote for," he said in the early hours of Friday.
Around 95 percent of the country's 1.8 million people are Muslim.
Children lined the streets for hours waiting for Jammeh, with at least one girl fainting after waiting since mid-afternoon for the president to arrive.
The nine-hour rally featured knife-wielding performing artists mingling with traditional "kankurang" dancers, who are covered head to toe in fine dried leaves, while Jammeh lapped the crowd as his soldiers beat back over-enthusiastic fans.
'End of the world'
Momodou Dahaba, who whips up crowds for a living at the rallies and describes himself as "Jammeh's number one supporter", dismissed the concerns of those leaving for Europe.
"When they have their own selfish problem, they just run away from this country and start criticising Yahya Jammeh," he told AFP.
"I am with him since 1994 and I will be with him until the end of the world," referring to the year Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup.
Campaigning ends on November 29, with opponents Adama Barrow, a candidate representing a coalition of opposition parties, and Mama Kandeh, a former ruling party MP canvassing in rural areas until late Friday.
Jammeh said in a televised address last year that "true Muslims" would encourage their sons and daughters to take up job opportunities which are available at home.
In reality 60 percent of the population live in poverty, and a third survive on $1.25 (1.20 euros) or less a day, according to the UN, while rights groups regularly accuse his regime of abuses and arbitrary arrests.
Several top officials of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) are serving three-year jail sentences for organising a protest in April.
The Gambia had tried to bring war crimes charges against European nations at the International Criminal Court for failing to rescue Africans who drown in the Mediterranean. However it recently announced it was withdrawing from the court.