First Niger evacuation flight lands in France as Europe seeks to rescue nationals

Three flights to France are planned to help citizens and other Europeans leave Niger after coup

French nationals and other European citizens who have been evacuated from Niger arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Reuters
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The first flight to evacuate French and other European citizens from Niger landed in France in the early hours of Wednesday.

France was the first country to help stranded nationals, two days after its embassy in Niamey was attacked by protesters following a military coup.

“There are 262 people on board the plane, an Airbus A330, including a dozen babies,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told AFP as the flight left Niger.

“Nearly all the passengers are compatriots” along with “some European nationals”, she said.

There were also Nigeriens, Portuguese, Belgians, Ethiopians and Lebanese on board, the Foreign Ministry said.

'It feels good'

The evacuation was “well organised, it was fairly quick, for me everything went well”, said Bernard, who had been working in Niger for the EU for two months.

“In Niamey, there are no particular tensions in the city, no particular stress, people go about their business,” he said.

“It feels good,” said a relieved Raissa Kelembho, who returned from Niger with her two boys. “At one point, there was a feeling of insecurity, we knew that everything could change,” said Ms Kelembho, whose husband remained in Niger for work.

Ms Colonna said it was the first of three flights planned to evacuate citizens from Niger.

A second plane carrying French, Nigerien, German, Belgian, Canadian, American, Austrian and Indian nationals was due to land, with a total of four flights planned so far in an operation expected to end by midday Wednesday.

The French Foreign Ministry said the flights were arranged after “violence” against its embassy on Sunday and “the closure of airspace which leaves our compatriots without the possibility of leaving the country by their own means”.

The Economic Community of West African States, comprising 15 countries, imposed sanctions against Niger after the coup last week, which include closing all their land and air borders with the landlocked nation.

The German Foreign Ministry urged its citizens in Niger to take up an offer from French authorities to join their evacuation flights on Tuesday, days after a junta seized power in the West African country.

“We can confirm that our French colleagues have offered, within the limits of available capacity, to take German nationals on board their flights from Niger,” the ministry said.

It estimated fewer than 100 German citizens were in Niger, excluding those who are part of a Bundeswehr military mission.

The Italian government said it was putting on a “special flight for those [Italians] who want to leave the country,” and that this was “not an evacuation”.

About 90 Italian citizens were in Niamey, out of nearly 500 across the country, it said.

The Spanish government is also preparing to evacuate more than 70 of its citizens from Niger by air, the Defence Ministry said on Tuesday.

A Foreign Ministry representative declined to provide further details about the operation, such as whether Spain would send its own aircraft, because of security concerns.

The ministry said embassy staff in Niamey had contacted Spanish residents and visitors there to co-ordinate the operation.

The UK and the US have so far said that they are not joining the evacuation process.

Washington is “certainly aware of efforts by France and other European nations to evacuate their citizens”.

“At the same time, we don't have any indications of direct threats to US citizens or to our facilities, so we have not changed our posture with respect to our presence in Niger at this time,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with President Mohamed Bazoum on Tuesday and “conveyed the continued unwavering support of the United States for President Bazoum and Niger's democracy”.

“He underscored that the United States rejects efforts to overturn the constitutional order,” the State Department said.

The UK Foreign Office was quoted by the BBC as urging its citizens in Niger to stay indoors. It said it had no plans to evacuate British nationals from the country.

Alarm bells

The coup has sounded alarm bells in France, Niger's former colonial master and traditional ally.

Paris blamed the evacuation on the “violence that took place against our embassy” and the risk of “closure of the airspace that would leave our compatriots without the possibility to leave”.

The Nigerien junta, however, announced late on Tuesday that it had reopened the country's land and air borders with five neighbouring states.

It is the first time that France has staged a large-scale evacuation in its former colonies in the Sahel.

However, the army chief of staff announced that a military pullout of France's 1,500 troops from Niger was “not on the agenda”.

The overthrow last Wednesday of Mr Bazoum – the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa – has sent shock waves across the region, pitting Niger's former western allies against the likes of Russia and other junta leaders in the region.

Mr Bazoum was elected President in 2021 in the first democratic and peaceful transition of power in the country's modern history. He remains under house arrest with his family.

On Sunday, supporters of the junta burnt French flags and attacked the French embassy in Niamey, prompting police to fire tear gas in response.

Ecowas gave Niger's junta one week to relinquish power or face “all necessary measures to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger”, including “the use of force”.

The military leadership of Mali and Burkina Faso warned on Monday that any military intervention against Niger would also amount to a declaration of war against the West African nations.

Western countries including France and Germany, as well as the EU, cut off budget and security aid to Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, after the coup.

The lost EU aid is estimated at €290 million ($320 million). Last year, France's development support to the country reached €120 million.

Updated: August 02, 2023, 7:28 AM