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Coup backers rally in Niger as security worries grow

NIAMEY — Thousands of people rallied Thursday in Niger's capital in support of the coup that toppled the democratically elected government, as security concerns mounted among Western nations.

Demonstrators in the heart of Niamey, some brandishing giant Russian flags, chanted anti-French slogans at the demonstration called to mark the anniversary of the west African nation's 1960 independence from France.

Issiaka Hamadou, one of the demonstrators, said that it was "only security that interests us", irrespective of whether it came from "Russia, China, Turkey, if they want to help us".

"We just don't want the French, who have been looting us since 1960, they've been there ever since and nothing has changed," he said.

Britain and the United States have announced the pulling back of embassy personnel in Niger as a precaution a week after the internationally condemned toppling of elected President Mohamed Bazoum.

US President Joe Biden demanded Bazoum's immediate release, calling for the "preservation of Niger's hard-earned democracy".

The clock is ticking down on the demand made Sunday from West African regional bloc ECOWAS for the coup leaders to restore Bazoum to power within a week or face the possible "last resort" of military intervention.

Paris, which said Thursday it had completed its evacuation flights, urged the junta led by General Abdourahamane Tiani to "fully guarantee" the safety of embassies in Niamey ahead of Thursday's independence protests.

European citizens have been evacuating from Niger, which has had a key role in French and Western strategies to combat a jihadist insurgency that has rampaged across the Sahel since 2012.

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders on Sunday imposed trade and financial sanctions, with Nigeria cutting off the electricity supplies that account for some 70 percent of Niger's grid.

West African military chiefs were meeting in Nigeria's capital Abuja to frame a response while an ECOWAS team headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar was in Niger for talks. 

West Africa's pre-eminent military and economic power Nigeria, the current chair of ECOWAS, has vowed a firm line against coups that have proliferated across the region since 2020.

Junta-ruled Mali and Burkina Faso have warned any military intervention in their neighbour would be tantamount to a "declaration of war" against them.

Russia on Wednesday called for “urgent national dialogue” in Niger and warned that threats of intervention “will not help ease tensions or calm the domestic situation”.

Europeans leave 

Bazoum, 63, was feted in 2021 after winning elections that ushered in Niger’s first-ever peaceful transition of power.

He took the helm of a country burdened by four previous coups since independence from France in 1960.

But after surviving two attempted putsches, Bazoum was overthrown on July 26 when members of his own guard detained him at the presidency.

Their commander, Tiani, has declared himself leader, but his claim has been condemned internationally.

France organised evacuation flights from Niamey following hostile demonstrations at the weekend. 

But in a televised address on Wednesday, Tiani said French nationals had nothing to fear, insisting they had never been subject “to the least threat”.

He rejected the international sanctions imposed in response to the coup, saying he “refused to give in to any threat”.

Western nations have taken action as the standoff between the coup plotters has grown more tense.

The US State Department “ordered the departure of non-emergency US government employees and eligible family members from Embassy Niamey”, it said Wednesday.

Germany has urged its citizens to leave, but the United States, which has 1,100 troops stationed in Niger — has opted to not evacuate all Americans for now.

Under Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger has had a key role in French and Western strategies to combat a militants insurgency that has rampaged across the Sahel since 2012.

After joining a regional revolt in northern Mali, armed Islamists advanced into Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015 and now carry out sporadic attacks on fragile states on the Gulf of Guinea.

Countless civilians, troops and police have been killed across the region, while around 2.2 million people in Burkina Faso alone have fled their homes.

The impact has contributed to army takeovers in all three Sahel countries and inflicted devastating damage to economies at the very bottom of the world’s wealth table.

France’s anti-terrorist Burkina Faso mission had at its peak about 5,400 troops, supported by fighter jets, helicopters and drones.

But the mission was refocused on Niger last year, when France pulled out of Mali and Burkina Faso after falling out with their juntas. 

Today, the reconfigured force has around 1,500 men, many of them deployed at an air base near Niamey.