NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger’s new military ruler lashed out at neighboring countries and the international community in a nationally televised speech Wednesday night, and he called on the population to be ready to defend the nation.
In one of few addresses to the West African country since seizing power from Niger’s democratically elected president a week ago, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani warned against foreign meddling and military intervention against the coup.
“We therefore call on the people of Niger as a whole and their unity to defeat all those who want to inflict unspeakable suffering on our hard-working populations and destabilize our country,” Tchiani said.
Tchiani, who commands Niger’s presidential guard, also promised to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to elections following his ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum.
His speech comes amid rising regional tensions as the West African regional bloc ECOWAS threatens to use military force if Bazoum isn’t released from house arrest and reinstated by Aug. 6. The bloc has imposed severe travel and economic sanctions.
The coup has been strongly condemned by Western countries, many of which saw Niger as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region. Russia and Western countries have been vying for influence in the fight against extremism.
France has 1,500 soldiers in Niger who conduct joint operations with its military, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
Tchiani said Niger is facing difficult times ahead and that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value. He called the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented.
The fierce rhetoric came as a fourth French military evacuation flight left Niger, after France, Italy and Spain announced evacuations of their citizens and other Europeans in Niamey amid concerns they could become trapped.
Nearly 1,000 people had left on four flights, and a fifth evacuation was underway, France’s ministry of foreign affairs said.
An Italian military aircraft landed in Rome on Wednesday with 99 passengers, including 21 Americans and civilians from other countries, the Italian defense ministry said. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the flights took place with the permission of Niger’s new government.
The State Department on Wednesday ordered what it said was the temporary departure of nonessential embassy staff and some family members from Niger as a precaution. It said its embassy would remain open. Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, said late Wednesday that the State Department had not requested U.S. military assistance for the departure.
A two-day meeting of defense chiefs of the ECOWAS bloc opened Wednesday in Nigeria’s capital to confer on next steps. Abdel-Fatau Musah, the bloc’s commissioner for political affairs, peace and stability, said the meeting in Abuja would deal with how to “negotiate with the officers in the hostage situation that we find ourselves in the Republic of Niger.”
The sanctions announced by ECOWAS included halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90% of its power from neighboring Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
On Tuesday, power transmission from Nigeria to Niger was cut off, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the issue. The official did not clarify how much of Niger’s power the cut represented, but any reduction would further squeeze citizens in the impoverished country of more than 25 million people.
U.S. officials have stayed engaged in trying to roll back the armed takeover. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who praised Niger as a “model of democracy” when he visited there in March, spoke again Wednesday with President Mohamed Bazoum, the State Department said in a statement. Blinken called the safety of Bazoum and his family “paramount,” and said the U.S. was committed to the restoration of democratically elected government in Niger.
A U.S. pullout would risk Washington’s longstanding counter-terror investments in the West African country, including a major air base in Agadez that is key to efforts against armed extremists across the Sahara and Sahel. The United States has roughly 1,000 military personnel in Niger and helps train some Nigerien forces.
Leaving Niger would also risk yielding the country to the influence of Russia and its Wagner mercenary group, which already has a significant presence in Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan.
Before sunrise Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside the terminal at Niamey’s airport hoping to leave. Some slept on the floor, while others watched television or talked on the phone.
A person who did not want to be named because of fears for personal safety, said they tried to shield their children from what was happening, telling them “just that they’re going home.” The person said they feared reprisal attacks against civilians if Niger’s regional neighbors follow through on threats to intervene militarily.
At a virtual United Nations meeting Tuesday night, the U.N. special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel said non-military efforts were underway to restore democracy in Niger.
“One week can be more than enough if everybody talks in good faith, if everybody wants to avoid bloodshed,” said the envoy, Leonardo Santos Simao. But, he added, “different member states are preparing themselves to use force if necessary.”
Others in the diplomatic community said military intervention was a real option.
ECOWAS is resolved to use military force because economic and travel sanctions have failed to roll back other coups, said a Western diplomat in Niamey, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.
The M62 Movement, an activist group that has organized pro-Russia and anti-French protests, called for residents in Niamey to mobilize and block the airport until foreign military personnel leave the country.
“Any evacuation of Europeans (should be) conditional on the immediate departure of foreign military forces,” Mahaman Sanoussi, the national coordinator for the group, said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria; Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington; Thomas Adamson, John Leicester and Masha Macpherson in Paris and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.