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West Africa’s ultimatum to Niger coup leaders nears deadline

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West Africa's ultimatum to Niger coup leaders nears deadline © Reuters. Thousands of anti-sanctions protestors gather in support of the putschist soldiers in the capital Niamey, Niger August 3, 2023. REUTERS/Mahamadou Hamidou

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By Boureima Balima and Felix Onuah

NIAMEY/ABUJA (Reuters) -West African nations were to determine on Friday a potential intervention if Niger’s coup is not overturned by the weekend after mediation failed in a crisis rattling global powers.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken a hard stance on last week’s toppling of President Mohamed Bazoum: the seventh coup in West and Central Africa since 2020.

Given its uranium and oil riches and pivotal role in the war with Islamist rebels in the Sahel region, Niger has strategic significance for the United States, China, Europe and Russia.

The Dutch government became the latest western nation on Friday to cut cooperation, even though Niger is one of the world’s poorest nations and relies on foreign aid for nearly half of its budget.

The new military junta, led by 59-year-old presidential guard commander Abdourahamane Tiani, on Thursday revoked military cooperation pacts with former colonial power France, as neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso did after their coups.

That could reshape the long-running fight against Islamist militants, not only in Niger but the region.

Paris, which has loudly condemned the putsch, has between 1,000-1,500 troops in Niger helping battle groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State. The United States, Germany and Italy also have troops stationed in Niger.

Detained at the presidential residence in Niger’s capital Niamey, Bazoum, a 63-year-old philosophy graduate elected in 2021, said in his first remarks since the coup that he was a hostage and in need of U.S. and international help.

“If it (the coup) succeeds, it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece, backing ECOWAS’ economic and travel sanctions.

Russia, whose private mercenary Wagner group has cheered the coup, said on Friday any interference from non-regional powers such as the United States was unlikely to help and repeated its call for a return to constitutional rule.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner which has forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, last week said his forces were available to restore order in Niger.

WEST AFRICAN DEFENCE CHIEFS MEET

The 15-member ECOWAS bloc sent a delegation to Niamey seeking an “amicable resolution”, but a source in the entourage said a meeting at the airport with the junta’s representatives yielded no breakthrough and they flew out in the early hours.

“All our efforts to meet with the leader of the junta failed. He rather sent five-member representatives to meet with us,” the Nigerian presidential source said.

“After the meeting that ended at midnight, they said they heard all we have said and that they will get back to us. We left Niamey immediately.”

ECOWAS has said it could authorise force if Bazoum is not back in power by Sunday. Its defence chiefs were ending a days-long meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Friday.

The junta has denounced outside interference and said it will meet any aggression with an immediate riposte. Tiani served as battalion commander for the regional bloc’s forces during conflicts in Ivory Coast in 2003, so he knows what such intervention missions involve.

He has support from fellow juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso.

The Niger junta has cited persistent insecurity as the main justification for seizing power, even though data on attacks shows security has actually been improving.

Bazoum, in the editorial, said the coup spelt chaos for his nation, with prices already soaring, and jihadists plus the Wagner group likely to exploit the situation.

“With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine,” he wrote.

Pro-Moscow propaganda has increased since Bazoum’s ouster, a German foreign ministry spokesperson said on Friday, citing distribution of Russian flags and a disinformation campaign.

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