By Moussa Aksar and Boureima Balima
NIAMEY (Reuters) – Presidential guards were holding Niger President Mohamed Bazoum inside his palace in the capital Niamey on Wednesday, as regional leaders organised a swift mediation mission to try to prevent another potential power grab in West Africa.
The African Union and West African regional bloc ECOWAS condemned what they called an attempted coup d’etat, calling on the plotters to free Bazoum and return to their barracks.
The United States urged the president’s release, while the European Union, United Nations, France and others condemned the uprising and said they were following the events with concern.
It was not clear who was in control on Wednesday evening. The president of neighbouring Benin, Patrice Talon, said he was on his way to Niger to assess the situation after meeting with Nigeria’s president and ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu.
“All means will be used, if necessary, to restore constitutional order in Niger, but the ideal would be for everything to be done in peace and harmony,” Talon told reporters in Abuja.
Niger’s presidency posted a statement earlier in the day saying that presidential guards had started an “anti-republican” movement “in vain” that morning, but it was later deleted.
The statement followed reports that presidential guards had cut access to the palace and blocked Bazoum inside, raising concern West Africa’s seventh coup since 2020 could be underway.
“The President of the Republic and his family are well,” the presidency said on social media at 12:30 local time (1130 GMT) without providing further details. It also said the army was ready to attack the guards if they did not come to their senses.
An adviser to the presidency, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters at about 1400 GMT that negotiations were underway between Bazoum’s camp and members of the presidential guard, which is headed by General Omar Tchiani.
An EU official also said later in the day that negotiations were taking place, and that EU leaders had spoken with Bazoum twice on Wednesday.
Bazoum was in his residence with his family, surrounded by members of the presidential guard, the EU official said, following what the European Union described as a mutiny.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also spoke to Bazoum on Wednesday afternoon, and expressed his full support and solidarity, the U.N. spokesperson posted on social media.
Soldiers had taken control of all roads leading to the national television station, which aired a brief news segment on Wednesday evening saying the situation remained unclear.
Crowds of Bazoum supporters gathered outside the national assembly in Niamey to call for the president’s release before they were dispersed by police, said a Reuters reporter.
A military takeover in the former French colony could further complicate Western efforts to help countries in the Sahel region fight a jihadist insurgency that has spread from Mali over the past decade.
Land-locked Niger has become a pivotal ally for Western powers seeking to help fight the insurgency but facing growing acrimony from the new juntas in charge in Mali and Burkina Faso. It is also a key ally of the European Union in the fight against irregular migration from sub-Saharan Africa.
France moved troops to Niger from Mali last year after its relations with interim authorities there soured. It has also withdrawn special forces from Burkina Faso amid similar tensions.
The United States says it has spent around $500 million since 2012 to help Niger boost its security. Germany announced in April that it would take part in a three-year European military mission aimed at improving the country’s military.
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“Bazoum has been the West’s only hope in the Sahel region. France, the U.S. and the EU have spent much of their resources in the region to bolster Niger and its security forces,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel programme for Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung think-tank.
He added that a coup would create an opportunity for Russia and other actors to spread their influence in Niger.
Frustrations over state failures to prevent violent attacks on towns and villages have partly spurred two coups in Mali and two in Burkina Faso since 2020.
A junta also snatched power in Guinea in 2021, contributing to instability in a region that had begun to shed its reputation as a “coup belt”.
There was a thwarted coup attempt in Niger in March 2021, when a military unit tried to seize the presidential palace days before the recently elected Bazoum was due to be sworn in.
Bazoum’s election was the first democratic transition of power in a state that has witnessed four military coups since independence from France in 1960.
Military action and community engagement have spared Niger from the brunt of the insurgency, which has killed thousands and displaced over six million across the Sahel.