Niger accuses France of releasing captured militants on eve of key summit

France denies all allegations made by Niger's new military rulers

Members of a military council that staged a coup in Niger attend a rally at a stadium in Niamey. Reuters
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On the eve of a key summit on the Sahel's latest crisis, Niger's new military rulers on Wednesday accused France, the country's traditional ally, of releasing captured militants and breaching a closed airspace.

Leaders of the West African bloc the Economic Community of West African States are set to meet in the Nigerian capital of Abuja to weigh their options, with diplomacy apparently edging out military intervention at present, after a showdown last weekend.

The Nigerien regime accused France of having “unilaterally freed captured terrorists” – referring to militants conducting a bloody eight-year-old insurgency.

The militants then allegedly gathered to plan an attack on “military positions in the tri-border area”, a hotspot region where the frontiers of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge, according to the statement issued by the coup leaders, called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland.

“Events of an extreme gravity are unfolding in Niger as a result of the behaviour of the French forces and their accomplices,” it declared.

It urged security forces to “raise their alert level across the country” and called on the public “to remain mobilised and vigilant”.

The regime also accused France of having flown a “military plane” from neighbouring Chad into Nigerien airspace on Wednesday, defying a ban imposed on Sunday.

The allegations were rejected by the French government.

“France firmly denies the new unfounded accusations by the putschists in Niger,” said a joint statement by the French defence and foreign ministries.

They also rejected the claim that France, which has about 1,500 soldiers stationed in Niger to aid anti-insurgency efforts, had released any militant prisoners.

It added that the flight had been approved and co-ordinated with the Nigerien armed forces, “an authorisation confirmed in writing”.

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Thursday's Ecowas summit will take place under the chairmanship of Nigeria, the regional superpower and advocate of a hard line against the coup.

Struggling to stem a cascade of coups among its members, the bloc gave Niger's military rulers until last Sunday to reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum or face a potential use of force.

But the coup leaders remained defiant, and the ultimatum passed without action.

On Tuesday, a bid to send a joint team of Ecowas, UN and African Union representatives to the capital Niamey was rejected by the coup leaders.

Despite the failure, Ecowas and Nigeria said they would pursue all options to resolve the crisis, and the US emphasised a “peaceful” outcome even though it had also been rebuffed.

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said through his spokesman that “no options have been taken off of the table” but diplomacy was the “best way forward”.

In a twist in negotiations on Wednesday, a former Nigerian emir revealed that he had met the coup leaders to help mediate the crisis.

“We have spoken to the head of state”, the new strongman Gen Abdourahamane Tchiani, and will deliver a “message” to Mr Tinubu, said Sanusi Lamido Sanusi on Nigerian state television. He added that was not an emissary of the government.

“We came hoping that our arrival will pave the way for real discussions between the leaders of Niger and those of Nigeria,” said Mr Sanusi, who is known to be a close friend of Mr Tinubu.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that he had spoken to Mr Bazoum “to express our continued efforts to find a peaceful resolution” to the “current constitutional crisis”.

France, which had adopted a combative tone as the Ecowas ultimatum loomed, also signalled a softer line.

A French diplomat said it was “up to Ecowas to make a decision, of whatever kind, on restoring constitutional order in Niger”.

Mr Bazoum, 63, was detained on July 26 by members of his presidential guard.

It is the fifth coup since Niger's independence from France in 1960 – and the fourth in the ranks of the 15-nation Ecowas since 2020.

Mr Bazoum's election in 2021 had helped Niger to cement close ties with France and the US, which have major bases and troop deployments in the country.

Countries in the fragile Sahel are battling with an insurgency that erupted in northern Mali in 2012, spread to Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015, and now is causing jitters in states on the Gulf of Guinea.

The bloody campaign has been devastating for those three countries, which have a long history of turbulence and are among the poorest nations in the world.

Mali and Burkina Faso have also had coups in recent years and fallen out with France, the region's former colonial power and traditional ally.

France last year withdrew its forces from those countries and refocused its anti-militant strategy on Niger.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 1:38 PM