NIAMEY, Niger (AP) – France, Italy and Spain announced evacuations from Niger on Tuesday for their citizens and other European citizens, concerned about the risk of being caught in a military coup that won the support of three other nations of West Africa also ruled by mutinous soldiers.
France’s Foreign Ministry cited the recent violence against its embassy in Niamey, the capital, as one of the reasons for its decision to offer evacuation flights to several hundred of its citizens and other Europeans. He said the closure of Niger’s airspace “leaves our compatriots unable to leave the country by their own means”.
Spain’s defense ministry announced preparations to evacuate more than 70 nationals and Italy also said it was organizing a flight. Germany’s foreign office recommended that its citizens accept France’s offer to fly them out.
The evacuations occur during a deepening crisis caused by the coup last week against the democratically elected president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum. His apparent ouster is a blow to Western nations that were working with Niger against West African extremists.
In the hotels of Niamey, the Europeans packed their bags.
A former French military officer who had been training the Nigerian army as a civilian told The Associated Press he was leaving despite the fact that his “job is not over.” Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, he said the military takeover happened quickly and caught many people by surprise.
The West African regional body known as ECOWAS announced economic and travel sanctions against Niger on Sunday and said it could use force if the coup leaders do not reinstall Bazoum within a week.
But the new junta was supported by the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso. They said that “any military intervention against Niger will be considered a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.”
The two countries also denounced ECOWAS economic sanctions as “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane” and refused to implement them.
ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger, as well as freezing Nigerian assets held in regional central banks. Niger is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and sanctions could impoverishes even more her more than 25 million people.
Mali and Burkina Faso have suffered two coups since 2020, as soldiers overthrew governments claiming they could do a better job fighting the rise of jihadist violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group . ECOWAS has sanctioned both countries and suspended them from the bloc, but has never threatened to use force.
Guinea, another country under military rule since 2021, also issued a statement in support of Niger’s junta and urged ECOWAS to “cover up”. Since the 1990s, the 15-nation ECOWAS has tried to protect democracies against the threat of coups, with mixed success.
The evacuations followed Sunday’s violence against the French embassy, with protesters burning a door and breaking windows before the Nigerian army dispersed them. thousands of supporters of the junta took to the streets of Niamey. Some waved Russian flags along with signs saying “Down with France” and in support Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling the international community to stay away.
There has been no clear explanation for the references to Russia, but some protesters see it as a symbol of their anti-Western sentiments.
Niger could follow in the footsteps of Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which saw protesters waving Russian flags after their coups, analysts say.
Niger’s coup could also encourage jihadist violence, some say.
Boubacar Moussa, a former member of an al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM, said the military overthrow is exactly what the jihadists want because it will distract and weaken the army. “The jihadis are very supportive of this coup that happened in Niger, because it will allow them to become very strong,” he said.
Moussa, who spoke to the AP in Niamey, is part of a national program to recapture jihadis, reintegrate them into society and use their aid in counterterrorism efforts. It was spearheaded by Bazoum when he was interior minister and is intended as an alternative to a military solution to curb violence across the country. The AP cannot verify that Moussa actively fought for JNIM.
If ECOWAS uses force, it could also spark violence between civilians who support the coup and those who oppose it, Niger analysts say.
A Western diplomat in Niamey, who did not want to be identified for security reasons, said the first sanctions against the coup plotters have not worked, so there is a decision to use military force, which could include troops from Nigeria , Benin and Ivory Coast. Niger is being squeezed and if imports are cut, gas and food could run out quickly, the diplomat said.
Observers believe Bazoum is under arrest at his home in Niamey. The first photos of him since the coup emerged on Sunday evening, sitting on a sofa smiling next to Chadian President Mahamat Deby, who had flown in to mediate between the government and the junta.
Both the United States and France have in recent years sent troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to Niger, which was a French colony until 1960. In the capital, many people live in makeshift shelters and ‘scatter daily to make enough. money to feed their children. Niger was seen as the last partner working with the West against extremism in a French-speaking region where anti-French sentiment led the way Russian private military group Wagner.
The United States will consider cutting aid if the coup is successful, the State Department said Monday. Aid is “very much in the balance based on the outcome of actions in the country,” said department spokesman Matt Miller. “US assistance depends on continued democratic government in Niger.”
AP reporters John Leicester in Paris, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Cara Anna in Nairobi and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.
This story corrects the name order and affiliation of the jihadist member to Boubacar Moussa, a former member of an al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM.