02 August 2023

Foreign nationals evacuate Niger as regional tensions rise

02 August 2023

Foreign nationals lined up outside an airport in Niger’s capital on Wednesday morning to wait for a French military evacuation flight, while a regional bloc continued talks about its response to the military coup that took place last week.

France, Italy and Spain all announced evacuations for their citizens and other Europeans in the capital, Niamey, following concerns that they could become trapped after soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum and seized power.

The Biden administration has yet to announce any decision on evacuation for American forces, diplomats, aid workers and other US citizens in Niger, an important counter-terror base for the United States in the Sahel.

Some Americans, however, have left with the help of the Europeans.

France’s first two flights evacuated more than 350 French nationals, as well as people from Niger and at least 10 other countries, the French Foreign Ministry said.

The Paris airport authority said two more evacuation flights are scheduled to land on Wednesday afternoon.

Some 1,200 French citizens are registered at the French Embassy, said the Foreign Ministry, and about half have asked to be evacuated.

An Italian military aircraft landed in Rome on Wednesday with 99 passengers, including 21 Americans and civilians from other countries, said the Italian defence ministry.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said, “In some way, we were authorised by the new government, which gave permission for the operation.”

Germany, which has encouraged its civilians in Niger to evacuate on French flights, said that it does not currently see any need to evacuate the approximately 100 troops it has in the country, largely connected to the UN mission in neighbouring Mali.

Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said he spoke with the German commander at the air base in Niamey on Tuesday, “and he told me clearly they are not at all worried about their safety at the moment; they are in close contact with the Nigerien military; they are driving out accompanied by the Nigerien military.” Supplies also are assured, he said.

Before sunrise on Wednesday, hundreds of people were lined up outside the terminal at Niamey’s airport hoping to leave, after a third flight was cancelled the night before.

Some slept on the floor, others watched videos, played games or talked on the phone.

Some parents tried to shield their children from what was happening.

One passenger said: “I haven’t told them very much, just that they’re going home.

“If ECOWAS (a West African regional bloc) intervenes, populations can attack ECOWAS nationals here. They’ve already made threats.”

On Sunday, ECOWAS, which stands for the Economic Community of West African States, said it would use force against the junta if it did not release and reinstate the president within a week.

The announcement was immediately rejected by neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, all of which are run by mutinous soldiers who toppled their governments.

Mali and Burkina Faso’s leaders said a military intervention in Niger “would be tantamount to a declaration of war” against them.

Niger was seen as one of the region’s last democracies and a partner Western countries could work with to beat back the jihadi violence that’s wracked the region.

The United States, France and other European countries have poured millions of dollars of military aid and assistance into the country.

On Tuesday, the United States said its Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with President Bazoum and underscored that the US rejects efforts to overturn the constitutional order, and stands with the people of Niger, ECOWAS, the African Union and international partners in support of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

The defence chiefs of ECOWAS’ 15 members will meet in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to discuss next steps in resolving the crisis, the bloc said in a statement.

At a virtual United Nations meeting, the UN special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel said that efforts other than the threat of force are underway to restore democracy in Niger.

Leonardo Santos Simao said: “One week can be more than enough if everybody talks in good faith, if everybody wants to avoid bloodshed.”

But, he added that “different member states are preparing themselves to use force if necessary”.

There are some in the diplomatic community who believe that the use of force could be a real option.

ECOWAS is resolved to use military force after economic and travel sanctions have failed to roll back other coups, said a Western diplomat in Niamey.

The capital city has calmed after protests supporting the junta turned violent. Demonstrators attacked the French embassy and set fire to a door.

However, some say the mood is still tense.

During the evacuation flights at the airport, a passenger who did not want to be named for security reasons said that the Nigerien military, which was escorting an Italian military convoy into the airport, sped off with soldiers who raised their middle fingers at the passengers.

That same night, the M62 Movement, an activist group that has organised pro-Russia and anti-French protests, called for residents in Niamey to mobilise and block the airport until foreign military forces leave the country.

Mahaman Sanoussi, the national coordinator for the group, said in a statement: “Any evacuation of Europeans (should be) conditional on the immediate departure of foreign military forces.”

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