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Pro-Russian protests on the streets of Niamey, Niger following a coup in the country. Alamy Stock Photo
Sahel

DFA 'carefully monitoring' situation in Niger as European partners launch rescue mission

The unrest comes as Niger is the latest country in the African region of the Sahel to suffer a coup along with Mali and Burkina Faso.

IRISH OFFICIALS HAVE said they are continuing to monitor the worsening situation in the African country of Niger after a coup there and have advised Irish nationals in the country to register with the embassy in Nigeria. 

A spokesperson with the Department of Foreign Affairs did not give specific numbers of Irish people in the Sahel area but said that they were engaging with European countries and other States to determine if an evacuation was required. 

“The Department of Foreign Affairs is carefully monitoring the situation in Niger together with our EU and other international partners.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs advises against all travel to Niger. Any Irish citizens in Niger who require consular assistance are advised to contact the Embassy of Ireland in Nigeria on +234 9 462 1080 and register their presence on the Department’s Citizens’ Registration platform,” a spokesperson said. 

In recent months the Irish Defence Forces’ Army Ranger Wing and officials from Foreign Affairs launched a rescue mission for Irish citizens in war torn Sudan. 

Contingency planning for such an operation in Niger has not been confirmed at present.

Irish troops have been stationed in Mali but a statement from the junta there has told the United Nations and individual states to leave. 

A French military force has 1,500 men, many deployed at a major air base near Niamey, while the United States has an important air base in Niger and 1,100 personnel.

France and Italy were preparing today to fly out their citizens and other Europeans from Niger, six days after a coup toppled one of the last pro-Western leaders in the jihadist-plagued Sahel and stoked anti-French demonstrations.

In the region’s third military takeover in as many years, President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by his own guard, triggering alarm bells in France, Niger’s former colonial power and traditional ally.

After hostile crowds gathered on Sunday outside the French embassy and Niger accused France of plotting to intervene militarily, Paris said earlier today it would withdraw citizens and offered to evacuate other Europeans as well.

“In the face of a deteriorating security situation in Niamey and taking advantage of the relative calm in Niamey, an operation of evacuation by air is being prepared,” the embassy told French citizens.

The evacuations “will take place very soon in a very limited span of time,” it said.

The initiative marks the first time that France has staged a large-scale evacuation in its former colonies in the Sahel, where there have been coups in Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020.

The German ministry urged “all German nationals” to take up the French evacuation offer. It said that fewer than 100 German civilians were believed to be in Niger.

In Rome, the government said it was putting on a “special flight” for Italians wishing to leave the country. Around 90 Italians are in Niamey, out of nearly 500 across the country, it said.

French military flights have been spotted arriving into Niamey this afternoon via the Flight Radar 24 aircraft monitoring app.  

nigeriens-participate-in-a-march-called-by-supporters-of-coup-leader-gen-abdourahmane-tchiani-in-niamey-niger-sunday-july-30-2023-days-after-mutinous-soldiers-ousted-nigers-democratically-elect Protestors in Niger holding a placard praising Vladimir Putin (Poutine in French). Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

First flight leaves

A first French plane later took off for Niamey, said a French source involved in the operation. Another source said France would be using unarmed military transporters, capable of taking more than 200 people.

The French foreign ministry said about 600 French nationals were in Niger.

Around a hundred of them carrying only light luggage gathered this afternoon at Niamey’s Diori Hamadi international airport, where Nigerien police and about 20 French soldiers were deployed.

But several French citizens told AFP they did not want to leave Niger immediately.

“I’m staying for the time being,” said one man who said he could only speak anonymously, under orders from his aid organisation employers.

“We don’t have a problem with the French” or Europeans, said a Nigerien named Hamidou Ali, aged 58. “We have a problem with European governments.”

But student Mahamadou Issoufou Idi said, “The French should leave — we no longer need them.”

‘Declaration of war’

On Sunday The West African bloc ECOWAS introduced sanctions on Niger and warned it may use force as it gave the coup leaders a week to reinstate Bazoum.

The following day, the junta accused France of seeking to “intervene militarily”, a charge which drew a French denial, while junta-ruled Mali and Burkina Faso warned any military intervention in Niger would be a “declaration of war” against them.

Niger is one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries – a vast semi-desert nation that had already experienced four coups since independence in 1960.

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

But his tenure was already marked by two attempted coups before last week’s dramatic events, in which he was detained by members of the elite Presidential Guard.

Guards chief General Abdourahamane Tiani has declared himself leader — but his claim has been rejected internationally, from ECOWAS, the African Union and the UN to France, the United States and the European Union.

According to Bazoum’s PNDS party, the junta has arrested the country’s oil, mining, interior and transport ministers, the head of the PNDS’s executive committee, and a former defence minister.

Security sources with a knowledge of activities in the Sahel region said that Russian mercenaries with the Wagner group were operating in the country. 

in-this-image-made-from-video-two-women-walk-past-soldiers-in-niamey-niger-friday-july-28-2023-the-general-who-led-a-coup-in-niger-defended-the-takeover-on-state-television-and-asked-for-support In this image made from video captured last week, two women walk past soldiers in Niamey, Niger. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Alarm

The coup has worried Western countries struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency that flared in northern Mali in 2012, advanced into Niger and Burkina Faso three years later and now overshadows fragile states on the Gulf of Guinea.

An unknown number of civilians, troops and police have been killed across the region, many in ruthless massacres, while around 2.2 million people in Burkina Faso alone have fled their homes. The economic damage has been devastating.

France had at one point 5,400 troops in its anti-jihadist Barkhane mission across the Sahel, supported by fighter jets, helicopters and drones.

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

In all three Sahel countries, the disgruntled military intervened against elected presidents as the toll mounted from jihadist attacks.

The takeovers have been accompanied by nationalist rhetoric and strident anti-French, pro-Russian demonstrations.

With additional reporting from AFP.

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