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Niger military ruler warns against any attack

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Niger’s new military ruler warned Saturday that any attack on the country would not be a “walk in the park”, as a delegation from West African countries made a final push to find a diplomatic solution following last month’s coup.

General Abdourahamane Tiani — who took power after army officers toppled Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 — said in a televised address that a transition of power would not go beyond three years.

But he added: “If an attack were to be undertaken against us, it will not be the walk in the park some people seem to think.”

He spoke after a delegation from West African bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) visited Niger for a final diplomatic push before deciding whether to take military action against Niger’s new military rulers.

They met ousted president Mohamed Bazoum on Saturday, and a source close to ECOWAS told AFP he was “in good spirits”.

Bazoum remains under detention and has been held with his family at the president’s official residence since the coup, with growing international concern over his conditions.

Images on Niger television showed Bazoum smiling and shaking hands with members of the delegation, led by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Television footage also showed Abubakar speaking with Tiani, but the content of the exchange has not been made public.

In his televised address, Tiani charged that ECOWAS was “getting ready to attack Niger by setting up an occupying army in collaboration with a foreign army”, without saying which country he meant.

He also announced a 30-day period of “national dialogue” to draw up “concrete proposals” to lay the foundations of “a new constitutional life”.

– President will not be harmed –

ECOWAS leaders say they have to act after Niger became the fourth West African nation since 2020 to suffer a coup, following Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

The bloc has agreed to activate a “standby force” as a last resort to restore democracy in Niger.

ECOWAS chair and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu on Friday threatened Niamey with “grave consequences” if the new regime allowed Bazoum’s health to worsen, an EU official said.

Niger’s military-appointed prime minister, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, told The New York Times that Bazoum would not be harmed.

“Nothing will happen to him, because we don’t have a tradition of violence in Niger,” the most senior civilian in the new regime told the daily.

Thousands of volunteers turned out in central Niamey on Saturday, answering a call to register as civilian auxiliaries who could be mobilised to support the army.

ECOWAS defence chiefs had met this week in the Ghanaian capital Accra to fine-tune details of a potential military operation to restore Bazoum if ongoing negotiations with coup leaders fail.

“We are ready to go any time the order is given,” Abdel-Fatau Musah, an ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs and security, said on Friday after the military chiefs’ meeting.

“The D-Day is also decided.”

– Risky operation –

The Sahel region is struggling with growing jihadist insurgencies linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Frustration over the violence has in part prompted the military takeovers.

ECOWAS troops have intervened in other emergencies since 1990, including civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria are expected to contribute troops to a Niger mission.

But details of any Niger operation have not been released and analysts say intervention would be politically and militarily risky, especially for regional player Nigeria.

Nigeria is already struggling to contain violence from several armed groups at home, and leaders in the country’s north have warned about spillover from Niger across the border if there is an intervention.

The military-ruled governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have also said an intervention in Niger would be seen as a declaration of war against them.

In the hours following the coup, former colonial ruler France — which fields 1,500 troops in Niger — was asked to back a potential armed move to restore Bazoum to office, sources close to the affair told AFP, confirming a report in Le Monde daily.

“But the loyalists changed sides and joined the putschists. So the conditions were not right to meet the request for support,” the source said.

ECOWAS has already applied trade and financial sanctions on Niger, while France, Germany and the United States have suspended aid programmes.

Also on Saturday, the United States said that a new ambassador had been installed in Niamey.

Kathleen FitzGibbon, a career diplomat with extensive experience in Africa,  will not however officially present her letter of assignment to the new authorities in place, as Washington does not recognise them.

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