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MILITARY COUP

Niger junta says French forces destabilising country, France denies

Cars drive on a main road in Niamey, Niger, 7 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ISSIFOU DJIBO)

Niger's junta accused France on Wednesday of violating its airspace, attacking a military camp and freeing ‘terrorists' as part of a broader plan to destabilise the country, charges swiftly denied by Paris.

The video statement by army officer Amadou Abdramane, which provided no evidence, came at a moment of high tension, with West African heads of state set to discuss options including military action against the junta on Thursday.

“What we are seeing is a plan to destabilise our country,” Abdramane said in the statement, accusing France of seeking to undermine the credibility of the junta in the eyes of the people and create a climate of insecurity.

France’s foreign ministry rejected the accusations, saying the aircraft movements were part of an earlier agreement with Niger forces and that its troops stationed in the west African nation were there at the request of the legitimate authorities.

“No attack against a Nigerien camp took place,” it added in its statement responding to the junta’s accusations.

It is not the first time that the Niger coup leaders have accused France of breaching their airspace.

The party of Niger’s deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, accused the junta, which seized power on July 26, of keeping him and his family in “cruel” and “inhumane” detention conditions at the presidential residence.

In a statement calling for a nationwide mobilisation to save them, the PNDS-Tarayya party said the Bazoums had no running water, no electricity and no access to fresh goods or doctors.

INTERNAL RESISTANCE

Earlier on Wednesday, news emerged that a former rebel leader had launched a movement opposing the junta, marking the first sign of internal resistance to army rule in the strategically important Sahel country.

Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium, the most widely used fuel for nuclear energy. It also extracts 20,000 barrels per day of oil, mostly from Chinese-run projects, and expects a major surge in output via a new export pipeline to Benin.

Anti-French rhetoric has been a feature of other coups in the region over the past two years, including in Mali and Burkina Faso, whose army rulers are strongly backing the generals now in charge in Niamey.

French troops are present in Niger, along with US, Italian and German troops, as part of international efforts to combat Islamist insurgents devastating the Sahel region, under agreements with the now deposed civilian government.

The junta has already revoked various military pacts with France, but Paris has rejected that decision, saying it was not taken by Niger’s legitimate authorities.

The coup was triggered by internal politics, but has spun out into an international drama, with West African regional bloc Ecowas, the United Nations and Western countries putting pressure on the junta to stand down, while Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to defend it.

CHALLENGES

The internal politics also became more complex on Wednesday with former rebel Rhissa Ag Boula announcing the creation of a new Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) aimed at reinstating ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been in detention at his residence since the takeover.

“Niger is the victim of a tragedy orchestrated by people charged with protecting it,” Ag Boula’s statement said, adding that the CRR would use “any means necessary” to stop the military from denying the people of Niger their free choice.

The challenge from Ag Boula raises the spectre of internal conflict in Niger, which until the coup was an important ally for the West in a region where other countries have turned against Western allies, especially France, and towards Russia.

Western powers fear Russian influence could grow stronger if the junta in Niger follows Mali’s example by throwing out Western troops and inviting in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group.

The junta has so far rebuffed diplomatic overtures from African, US and UN envoys.

On Thursday, Ecowas heads of state are scheduled to meet in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss Niger, including the possible use of force to restore constitutional order.

The CRR supports Ecowas and any other international actors seeking to end army rule in Niger, Ag Boula’s statement said.

Ag Boula played a leading role in uprisings by Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group present in Niger’s desert north, in the 1990s and 2000s. Like many former rebels, he was integrated into government under Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou.

The coup has already led to border and airspace closures that have cut off supplies of medicine and food, hampering humanitarian aid in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Nigeria’s President and Ecowas chairman Bola Tinubu imposed more sanctions on Niger on Tuesday, aimed at squeezing entities and individuals involved in the takeover, and said all options remained on the table.

(Additional reporting by David Lewis, David Gauthier-Villars, Edward McAllister, Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Nellie Peyton, Estelle Shirbon and Sofia Christensen; Editing by William Maclean, Peter Graff and Gareth Jones.)

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