Niger’s junta accused France of violating its airspace as part of a larger conspiracy to destabilize the country, ramping up language in a way that offered little prospect for a quick diplomatic resolution.
The video declaration by army commander Amadou Abdramane, which supplied no evidence, came at a time of high tension, with West African heads of state expected to meet on Thursday to consider options, including military action against the junta.
“What we are seeing is a plan to destabilise our country,” Abdramane said in the statement, accusing France of seeking to undermine the credibility of the junta in the eyes of the people and create a climate of insecurity.
It is not the first time that the Niger coup leaders have accused France of breaching their airspace. Paris has denied doing so. There was no immediate French reaction on Wednesday to the junta’s latest statement.
Hours earlier, news emerged that a former rebel leader had launched a movement opposing the junta, which took power in a July 26 coup – the first sign of internal resistance to army rule in the strategically important Sahel country.
Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium, the most widely used fuel for nuclear energy. It also extracts 20,000 barrels per day of oil, mostly from Chinese-run projects, and expects a major surge in output via a new export pipeline to Benin.
Anti-French rhetoric has been a feature of other coups in the region over the past two years, including in Mali and Burkina Faso, whose army rulers are strongly backing the generals now in charge in Niamey.
French troops are present in Niger, along with U.S., Italian and German troops, as part of international efforts to combat Islamist insurgents devastating the Sahel region, under agreements with the now deposed civilian government.
The junta has already revoked various military pacts with France, but Paris has rejected that decision, saying it was not taken by Niger’s legitimate authorities.
The coup was triggered by internal politics, but has spun out into an international drama, with West African regional bloc ECOWAS, the United Nations and Western countries putting pressure on the junta to stand down, while Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to defend it.
The internal politics also became more complex on Wednesday with former rebel Rhissa Ag Boula announcing the creation of a new Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) aimed at reinstating ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been in detention at his residence since the takeover.
“Niger is the victim of a tragedy orchestrated by people charged with protecting it,” Ag Boula’s statement said, adding that the CRR would use “any means necessary” to stop the military from denying the people of Niger their free choice.
The challenge from Ag Boula raises the spectre of internal conflict in Niger, which until the coup was an important ally for the West in a region where other countries have turned against Western allies, especially France, and towards Russia.
Western powers fear Russian influence could grow stronger if the junta in Niger follows Mali’s example by throwing out Western troops and inviting in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group.
The junta has so far rebuffed diplomatic overtures from African, U.S. and U.N. envoys.
On Thursday, ECOWAS heads of state are scheduled to meet in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss Niger, including the possible use of force to restore constitutional order.
The CRR supports ECOWAS and any other international actors seeking to end army rule in Niger, Ag Boula’s statement said, adding that the Council would make itself available to the bloc for any useful purpose.
Ag Boula played a leading role in uprisings by Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group present in Niger’s desert north, in the 1990s and 2000s. Like many former rebels, he was integrated into government under Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou.
The coup has already led to border and airspace closures that have cut off supplies of medicine and food, hampering humanitarian aid in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Nigeria’s President and ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu imposed more sanctions on Niger on Tuesday, aimed at squeezing entities and individuals involved in the takeover, and said all options remained on the table.