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Niger faces turmoil as reported coup unfolds

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NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Mutinous soldiers claimed to have overthrown Niger’s democratically elected president, announcing on state television late Wednesday that they have put an end to the government over the African country’s deteriorating security.

The soldiers said all institutions had been suspended and security forces were managing the situation. The mutineers urged external partners not to interfere.

The announcement came after a day of uncertainty as members of Niger’s presidential guard surrounded the presidential palace and detained President Mohamed Bazoum. There was no immediate indication of whether the mutiny was supported by other parts of the military. It was unclear where the president was at the time of the announcement or if he had resigned.

Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum demonstrate in his support in Niamey, Niger, Wednesday July 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

“This is as a result of the continuing degradation of the security situation, the bad economic and social governance,” air force Col. Major Amadou Abdramane said on the video. Seated at a table in front of nine other officers, he said aerial and land borders were closed and a curfew was imposed until the situation stabilized.

The group, which is calling itself National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, said it remained committed to its engagements with the international and national community.

Earlier Wednesday, a tweet from the account of Niger’s presidency reported that members of the elite guard unit engaged in an “anti-Republican demonstration” and unsuccessfully tried to obtain support from other security forces. It said Bazoum and his family were doing well but that Niger’s army and national guard “are ready to attack” if those involved in the action did not back down.

The commissions of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States described the events as an effort to unseat Bazoum, who was elected president two years ago in the nation’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960.

Threats to Bazoum’s leadership would undermine the West’s efforts to stabilize Africa’s Sahel region, which has been overrun with coups in recent years. Mali and Burkina Faso have had four coups since 2020, and both are being overrun by extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger in March, seeking to strengthen ties with a country where extremists have carried out attacks on civilians and military personnel but the overall security situation was not as dire as in neighboring nations.

During a stop in New Zealand on Thursday, Blinken repeated the U.S. condemnation of the mutiny against Niger’s president and said his team was in close contact with officials in France and Africa.

Blinken added that he had spoken with Bazoum on Wednesday, saying that he “made clear that we strongly support him as the democratically elected president of the country.”

Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said the mutiny was a “nightmare scenario for Western powers who had betted on Bazoum and Niger as new security anchor for the Sahel.”

“It remains to be seen whether this is the last word. Parts of the army are probably still loyal to Bazoum. They benefited much from equipment and training as part of foreign military assistance,” Laessing said.

Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum at the presidential palace in Niamey, Niger, March 16, 2023. (Boureima Hama/Pool Photo via AP/File)

Before the announcement, hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital, Niamey, and chanted “No coup d’etat” while marching in support of the president. Multiple rounds of gunfire that appeared to come from the presidential palace dispersed the demonstrators and sent people scrambling for cover, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

“We are here to show the people that we are not happy about this movement going on, just to show these military people that they can’t just take the power like this,” protester Mohammed Sidi said. “We are a democratic country, we support democracy and we don’t need this kind of movement.”

The international community strongly condemned the attempted seizure of power.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who spoke to Bazoum in the afternoon to express “his full support and solidarity,“ issued a strong condemnation of the mutineeers late Wednesday.

“He is deeply disturbed by the detention of President Mohamed Bazoum and is concerned for his safety and well-being,” said Guterres’ spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric.

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Guterres urged the immediate release of Bazoum without any conditions and called for “an immediate end to all actions undermining democratic principles in Niger,” the spokesman added.

The governments of France and the United States also voiced concern and urged the participating guardsmen to change course. Bazoum’s administration has made Niger a key Western partner in the fight against Islamist extremism in Africa’s Sahel region.

“We strongly condemn any effort to detain or subvert the functioning of Niger’s democratically elected government, led by President Bazoum,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. “We specifically urge elements of the presidential guard to release President Bazoum from detention and refrain from violence.”

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who was selected this month as the ECOWAS Commission’s chairman, said the regional bloc’s leadership would resist any attempt to unseat Niger’s government.

“It should be quite clear to all players in the Republic of Niger that the leadership of the ECOWAS region and all lovers of democracy around the world will not tolerate any situation that incapacitates the democratically elected government of the country,” Tinubu said in a statement he issued in Abuja. “We will do everything within our powers to ensure democracy is firmly planted, nurtured, well rooted and thrives in our region.”

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