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Niger Junta Takes Aim at France Ahead of Key Summit


FILE - Supporters of Niger's National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) demonstrate in Niamey on August 6, 2023.

NIAMEY — Niger's military junta on Wednesday accused France, the country's traditional ally, of having released captured jihadists and breaching a ban on air space on the eve of a key summit on the Sahel's latest crisis.

Leaders of the West African bloc ECOWAS are to meet in the Nigerian capital Abuja Thursday to mull their options.

Two weeks after a coup that toppled Niger's elected president, the regime accused France of having "unilaterally freed captured terrorists" — a term for jihadists conducting a bloody eight-year-old insurgency.

The jihadists then gathered to plan an attack on "military positions in the tri-border area," a hotspot region where the frontiers of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge, according to the statement issued by the coup leaders, called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, CNSP.

"Events of an extreme gravity are unfolding in Niger as a result of the behavior of the French forces and their accomplices," it declared.

It urged the security forces to "raise their alert level across the country" and on the public "to remain mobilized and vigilant."

The regime also accused France of having flown a "military plane" from neighboring Chad into Niger air space on Wednesday, defying a ban imposed on Sunday.

The two allegations were rejected by a French government official, AFP reported.

"No terrorist has been freed by French forces," the source said, adding that the flight had been "authorized by and coordinated with" Niger's armed forces.

The military junta has appointed new cabinet ministers and barred most international meditators from the country as it works to entrench itself in power.

They refused to admit mediation teams that were meant to arrive Tuesday, sent by the United Nations, the African Union, and ECOWAS. The junta cited “evident reasons of security in this atmosphere of menace," according to a letter seen by The Associated Press.

ECOWAS had threatened to use military force if the junta didn’t reinstate the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum by Sunday, a deadline that the junta ignored and which passed without action from ECOWAS.

The junta's leaders named a new prime minister Monday, in what analysts described as an attempt to show that they're serious about governing the West Africa country.

The military leaders chose civilian economist Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine as prime minister. Zeine is a former minister of economy and finance who left office after his government was ousted by a previous military coup in 2010, and later worked at the African Development Bank.

“The establishment of a government is significant, and signals at least to the population, that they have a plan in place, with support from across the government,” said Aneliese Bernard, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in African affairs and who is now director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group.

Mutinous soldiers detained Bazoum and seized power on July 26, claiming they could do a better job at protecting the nation from jihadi violence. Groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have ravaged the Sahel region, a vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert.

But most analysts and diplomats say that reason doesn’t hold weight and that the takeover was the result of a power struggle between the president and the head of his presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who now says he runs the country.

The coup comes as a blow to many countries in the West, which saw Niger as one of the last democratic partners in the region they could work with to beat back the extremist threat. Niger also matters to the global market on various fronts, including a 5% share of the global supply of uranium.

Niger’s partners have threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance if it does not return to constitutional rule. But so far diplomatic efforts have yielded little as the junta tightens its grip on power.

While the crisis drags on, Niger’s some 25 million people are bearing the brunt. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. Many Nigeriens live hand to mouth and say they’re too focused on finding food for their families to pay much attention to the escalating crisis.

Harsh economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS since the coup have caused food prices to rise by up to 5%, say traders.

On Monday, the junta shut Niger's airspace, and on Tuesday it temporarily suspended authorization for diplomatic flights from friendly and partner countries, said the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this week, acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with the coup leaders, but said they refused to allow her to meet Bazoum, who has been detained since being toppled. She described the mutinous officers as unreceptive to her appeals to start negotiations and restore constitutional rule.

The U.S. has some 1,100 military personnel in the country and has seen Niger as a strategic and reliable partner in the region.

Nuland made more headway than other delegations. A previous ECOWAS delegation was prevented from leaving the airport.

It’s unclear what coordination is taking place among the various mediation attempts. Some experts have worried that if efforts are not coordinated, it could undermine ECOWAS.

“I think the U.S would come to a modus vivendi with this junta, if the junta proved particularly amenable to U.S interests, but that doesn’t seem to be on the table for now,” said Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

In a statement Tuesday after being rejected from visiting Niger, ECOWAS said it was trying to find a peaceful solution to the crisis and will continue to “deploy all necessary measures to ensure the return to constitutional order.”

Niger's neighbors have not ruled out military intervention, Nigeria's president said, ahead of the Thursday's summit.

Analysts say the longer it takes to find a solution, the more time the junta has to dig in and the less momentum there will be to oust it. Regional countries are also divided on how to proceed.

Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which are run by military regimes, have sided with the junta and warned that an intervention in Niger would be “would be tantamount to a declaration of war” against them. In a joint letter to the United Nations, the two countries appealed for the organization to “prevent by all means at its disposal, armed action against a sovereign state.”

Mali and Burkina Faso also sent representatives to Niamey this week to discuss military options. Officials from all sides said the talks went well.

Information for this report came from The Associated Press and AFP.