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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Europeans evacuate Niger amid risks of wider conflict

Security forces launched tear gas to disperse a pro-junta protest outside the French Embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger, on Sunday.

By Declan Walsh, Elian Peltier and Dionne Searcey

More than 250 Europeans were evacuated from the West African nation of Niger on Tuesday on a plane sent by France, nearly a week after a coup threatened to set off a regional conflict.

The evacuations came less than a day after two neighboring states, Burkina Faso and Mali, said that they would join forces to defend Niger’s new military junta if a bloc of other regional countries carried through on a threat to intervene unless the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, was returned to office.

France’s foreign ministry said that most of the 262 people on the plane were French. A second plane was also scheduled to depart Tuesday, and Italy has said that it, too, would set up a flight.

Tensions rose after the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, vowed Sunday to take “all measures necessary,” including possible military action, to force the reinstatement of Niger’s president.

Mali and Burkina Faso, themselves ruled by military governments that took power in coups, responded Monday, saying that they would consider any move against Niger to be a “declaration of war” against their own countries.

Many analysts said in interviews that an imminent military confrontation was unlikely. But the statement further raised the stakes in a spiraling crisis that has exposed deep regional fissures and set off international alarm over the direction of a region where a succession of governments have fallen to military takeovers in the past four years.

It also raised the prospect that the crisis in Niger, where about 2,600 American and French troops are stationed, could spread into a wider regional conflict.

A French military official said in a briefing Tuesday that military cooperation with Niger has been suspended, but that French troops were not leaving the country. The Pentagon also said that it had suspended military cooperation with Niger for the time being.

Uncertainty persists over who is truly in charge in Niger, an impoverished nation of 25 million people that is twice the land mass of France.

Bazoum, 63, who was detained by his own presidential guards Wednesday, is being held in his private residence near the presidential palace in Niamey. But he can receive visitors — a photo posted to social media Sunday showed a smiling Bazoum sitting with the visiting president of Chad, Mahamat Déby, a mediator in the crisis — and he takes phone calls from world leaders and his own officials.

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, has claimed to be in charge of the military council running the country. Tchiani, 59, has received military training in France and in the United States, at the College of International Security Affairs Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C. But he fell into disfavor with Bazoum and has criticized Bazoum’s approach to fighting insurgents in the country, which relied heavily on French and American support.

Niger’s ambassador to Britain and France, Aïchatou Boulama Kané, told the BBC on Tuesday that she had spoken to Bazoum and that he was doing well. “His morale is high,” she said. The ambassador said that she was speaking on behalf of the deposed president and not for Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the junta leader who now claims to be running the country.

The crisis is a stiff test for ECOWAS and its head, the recently elected president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu. The group had already suspended Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea over military coups in those countries since 2020. The tough statement Sunday signaled that the bloc was ready to move militarily if necessary, despite a checkered record of interventions in regional conflicts.

ECOWAS set a deadline of next Sunday for Bazoum’s reinstatement. For now, though, it hopes to combat the coup through an economic blockade of landlocked Niger, which depends heavily on its neighbors for trade and financial stability. The measures announced Sunday included a slate of punishing sanctions against the coup leaders, as well as the suspension of all trade and financial transfers between its member states and Niger. The bloc has also frozen Niger’s assets in regional banks.

Guinea, which has been ruled by a military junta since 2021, said it would not join in sanctions against Niger, though it made no mention of taking military action.

But Niger’s junta leaders have found powerful support in their fellow military leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, who have developed ties of varying degrees to Russia as they have distanced themselves from France.

France’s evacuation from Niger is the latest in a succession of blows to French power and prestige in western and central Africa, a region it dominated for decades after the end of colonialism in the 1960s.

The junta in Mali expelled 5,000 French troops last year and brought in 1,500 mercenaries with Wagner, the Kremlin-backed private military company, which has since been accused of leading massacres in which hundreds of civilians were killed.

In Burkina Faso, France withdrew its troops this year at the request of the country’s military government. Burkina Faso’s leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, lavished abundant praise on Russia during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week.

Military clashes in Niger could divert soldiers from domestic fights against Islamist insurgents, analysts said.

“Regional partners need Niger and its structured military to stabilize the region,” said Fahiraman Koné, a Mali-based researcher with the Institute of Security Studies.

Even in countries without an insurgency, like Senegal, demonstrators have targeted symbols of French economic might, like French-owned gas stations and supermarkets.

In Niger on Sunday, hundreds of protesters flung stones and Molotov cocktails over the French Embassy’s wall.

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