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France to start evacuating French, EU citizens from Niger

France to start evacuating French, EU citizens from Niger
Protesters with a placard 'France go away, Niger is my country' during a protest in Niamey, Niger, 30 July 2023. Thousands of supporters of General Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the Presidential Guard, who declared himself the new leader of Niger after a coup against democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on 26 July, took to the streets of Niamey to demonstrate support for the coup. EPA-EFE/ISSIFOU DJIBO

France will evacuate French and European citizens from Niger starting on Tuesday, its foreign ministry said, days after a junta seized power in the west African country.

Niger’s borders have been closed to commercial flights since military officers ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and his democratically elected government last Wednesday, in the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa.

The coup has sent shockwaves across the Sahel region, where Niger’s Western allies fear losing influence to Russia, and has raised security fears as groups linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda have been gaining ground in the area for years.

France has had troops in the Sahel for a decade helping to fight an Islamist insurgency, but some locals say they want the former colonial ruler to stop intervening in their affairs.

On Sunday, supporters of the junta burned French flags and attacked the French embassy in Niger’s capital, Niamey, prompting police to fire volleys of tear gas in response.

“Considering the situation in Niamey, the violence against our embassy the day before yesterday and the fact that the air space is shut and our citizens cannot leave by their own means, France is preparing the evacuation of its citizens and European citizens who wish to leave the country,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“The evacuation will start today,” it said.

According to the French foreign ministry website, there were just under 1,200 French nationals in Niger in 2022.

But French media including paper Le Monde said only around 600 were in the country right now as many families with children were on holiday. The foreign ministry declined to give a precise figure but spoke of “several hundreds.”

Italy also said on Tuesday it would offer a special flight to repatriate its nationals from the capital Niamey.

The United States, Germany, and Italy have troops in Niger on counter-insurgency and training missions. There has been no announcement of troops being evacuated so far.

DESTABILISATION FEARS

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told BFM TV late on Monday that the protest in front of the embassy and the ensuing accusations that France shot at the crowd – which it denies – “have all the usual ingredients of destabilisation, the Russian-African way”.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, last week welcomed the coup in Niger, and said his forces were available to restore order.

The Kremlin said the situation in Niger was “cause for serious concern” and called for a swift return to constitutional order.

Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.

A spokesperson for the EU Commission said EU utilities had sufficient inventories of natural uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks.

French nuclear fuels company Orano said its activities were continuing in Niger and would not be affected by the evacuations, as 99% of staff were Nigerien nationals.

Regional bloc ECOWAS has imposed sanctions, including border closure, a halt in all financial transactions and a national assets freeze, and said it could authorise force to reinstate Bazoum, who is still locked in his palace.

But the juntas of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea all voiced their support for the coup’s leaders on Monday.

(Reporting by Michel Rose, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Layli Foroudi, Blandine Henault, Charlotte van Campenhout; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Nellie Peyton; Editing by Christina Fincher, Alex Richardson, Alexandra Hudson)

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