France prepared to evacuate hundreds of French and European citizens from Niger on Tuesday, a day after neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso said any outside intervention to restore the ousted government would be seen as a declaration of war.
A military junta overthrew Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum and his government last Wednesday in the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS last Sunday threatened to use force to reinstate Bazoum if the soldiers didn’t do it within a week, while neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso – also ruled by military juntas – said they would come to Niger’s defense.
With the risk of conflict escalating, Spain said it was preparing to evacuate more than 70 citizens by air and Italy said it would organize a repatriation flight. Germany urged its citizens to join the French flights.
The coup has sent shockwaves across the Sahel region, which is fighting an extremist militant insurgency and where Niger had been considered the West’s most stable ally until now.
The recent coups in the region have come amid a wave of anti-French sentiment, with locals saying they want the former colonial ruler to stop intervening in their affairs and calling for partnerships with Russia instead.
Niger’s new military leaders have proceeded to arrest senior politicians and warned against any foreign attempts to extract Bazoum, who is still shut in his palace.
“Considering the ongoing coup in Niger and the fact that the situation continues to be worrying, we decided to make sure that the French citizens who want to leave Niger can do so,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told France’s LCI TV.
She estimated that hundreds of French citizens and hundreds of other EU citizens wanted to be evacuated on flights she hoped would be completed over 24 hours.
Flightradar showed a plane registered to the French armed forces had landed at the airport of the capital Niamey at 1207 GMT and was due to depart around 1510 GMT.
France, the United States, Germany, and Italy have troops in Niger on counter-insurgency and training missions. There has been no announcement of troops being evacuated so far.
Colonna said France had talked with “those who are in control” in Niger to make sure the evacuation could proceed safely, which was in no way a recognition of the junta.
‘Declaration of war’
West African bloc ECOWAS has taken its hardest line yet on Niger, after struggling to persuade the military rulers of member states Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea to restore democracy.
A declaration by Mali and Burkina Faso on Monday night was the strongest indication yet of a new alliance forming, in opposition to the rest of the 15-member-state regional bloc.
“Mali and Burkina Faso warn that any military intervention in Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali,” said a joint statement read on both countries’ national broadcasters.
They said that they would withdraw from ECOWAS and adopt “measures of legitimate defense” to support Niger’s army and people if ECOWAS intervened. Guinea’s military leaders also expressed solidarity with Niger.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, last week welcomed the coup in Niger, and said his forces were available to restore order.
The Kremlin said the situation in Niger was “cause for serious concern” and called for a swift return to constitutional order.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.
A spokesperson for the EU Commission said EU utilities had sufficient inventories of natural uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks.
French nuclear fuels company Orano said its activities were continuing in Niger and would not be affected by the evacuations, as 99% of staff were Nigerien nationals.