Niger’s Coup Leaders Sever Ties With France, as Detained President Pleads for Help

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Niger’s Coup Leaders Sever Ties With France, as Detained President Pleads for Help

Niger’s coup leaders on Thursday said that they had severed military ties with France, their country’s former colonial ruler, throwing into uncertainty the future of 1,500 French troops based there, in a region of West Africa plagued with coups and Islamist insurgencies.

The leaders of the coup also dismissed Niger’s ambassadors to France and the United States, another military partner, as well as the ambassadors to Togo and Nigeria, an essential trade partner.

In an extraordinary move, the elected president of Niger, who has been locked up in the presidential palace by his own guards for over a week, wrote an opinion column published in The Washington Post calling on the United States and other allies to help restore constitutional order.

“I write this as a hostage,” President Mohamed Bazoum said in his opinion essay, published on Thursday evening. “Niger is under attack from a military junta that is trying to overthrow our democracy.”

He warned that attacks from jihadist groups could increase and that Russia could expand its influence in the region if the coup leaders remain in power.

The plea came just days before a deadline given by other West African countries in a threat to go to war against the coup leaders, despite skepticism that the nations will take military action.

Under Mr. Bazoum, Niger had been a key security partner to the United States and Europe, hosting more than 2,500 troops from France, the United States and the European Union.

Civilian deaths and political violence in Niger have decreased this year, according to data released by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Niger has fared better against the insurgents than neighbors like Mali, which has contracted with fighters from the Kremlin-backed Wagner private military company, and Burkina Faso, which has moved closer to Russia. Both of those countries were also taken over in military coups.

The mutinous soldiers in Niger flew to Mali this week, and met with the military junta there. The Nigerien junta later said they had also visited Burkina Faso.

The United States, Europe and most African countries have not recognized the military junta as the legitimate leader of Niger. Neighboring countries have imposed economic sanctions on Niger in response to the coup, and the Nigerien public has faced power cuts and cash shortages as a result.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid could be endangered in Niger, which depends on foreign aid for 40 percent of its national budget and is among the world’s poorest.

The fate of French troops in Niger remained unclear on Friday. Most had moved there from neighboring Mali last year, after Malian military rulers also broke ties with France. When Burkina Faso severed a military partnership with France in January, French troops had a month to leave.

Unlike other ousted leaders in the region in recent years, Mr. Bazoum has refused to formally resign, and he and his family are being held in his private residence.

He has spoken by telephone with officials including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and President Emmanuel Macron of France. And on Sunday, President Mahamat Idriss Déby of neighboring Chad, who visited him, posted a photograph of the smiling imprisoned president on social media.

Mr. Bazoum, who is 63, did not detail in his essay the conditions in which he was being detained, or how he had been able to write or approve the text.

Senior Nigerien diplomats still call Mr. Bazoum their boss.

“You can’t just wake up in the morning, and with no reason, declare that you are the ruler,” Kiari Liman-Tiguri, Niger’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with The New York Times this week, before announcement that he had been dismissed by the military junta.

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who claims to be in charge of Niger, said in a television address that he had seized power to restore security and fight corruption.

The Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc known as ECOWAS, has given him an ultimatum to hand back power before Monday. Several West African countries, including Nigeria and Senegal, have said they are ready to send troops for a military intervention if Niger does not return to democratic rule.

But many experts have said that a military intervention is unlikely, at least in the short term, and that Mr. Bazoum is unlikely to be reinstated. West African defense chiefs gathered in Nigeria this week said that a military intervention was “the last resort.”

In his opinion essay, Mr. Bazoum accused military juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali of employing “criminal Russian mercenaries such as the Wagner Group at the expense of their people’s rights and dignity.”

The Wagner group has about 1,500 troops in Mali, allied with the military regime there. Despite rumors, there is no evidence that Burkina Faso’s junta leaders have worked with the group.

Its founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, has praised the coup in Niger and offered Wagner’s services to the military leaders, although it is unclear what operational control he still has over the mercenaries in Africa after his failed mutiny in Russia in June.

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