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France to evacuate citizens from Niger

Nigeriens holding a Russian flag and placards outside the French embassy on Sunday chanted “Long live Russia” and “Down with France” in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023. Photo: AP

France will begin evacuating its nationals from Niger on Tuesday, the foreign ministry said, after a coup last week toppled the country’s pro-Western leader.

The decision to move citizens out was prompted by attacks on the French embassy in Niamey, and the closure of Niger’s airspace which made regular departures impossible, the ministry said in a statement.

France had earlier on Tuesday said that it was preparing an evacuation “in the face of a deteriorating security situation in Niamey” but gave no timeframe.

There are an estimated 600 French nationals in Niger, not counting visiting tourists or French residents currently outside the country.

The foreign ministry said France was also offering to evacuate other European nationals.

The French government convened a ministerial meeting Tuesday to decide on the exact modalities of the evacuation.

A source close to the operation told AFP that France was planning on using military personnel transport planes.

Report says that Italy’s foreign minister also said Italian citizens were being offered the chance to leave Niamey on a special flight to Italy.

Niger President Mohamed Bazoum was detained by his own presidential guard in a third coup in as many years in the Sahel, following putsches in neighbouring fellow former French colonies of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Niger’s junta on Monday accused France of seeking to “intervene militarily” to reinstate Bazoum, which French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna denied.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday vowed “immediate and uncompromising” action if French citizens or interests were attacked, after thousands rallied outside the French embassy in Niamey.

Niger, which is rich in uranium, has been a key Western ally in the fight against jihadist extremism in the Sahel and both France and the US have military bases there.

After Mali’s military leaders chose to partner up with the Russian Wagner mercenaries in 2021, France moved the centre of its regional counter-terror operations to Niger.

Earlier, France had welcomed the ultimatum issued on Sunday by the West African bloc Ecowas, giving Niger’s junta a week to reinstate elected President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been confined to the presidential palace in Niamey.

Chad’s President Mahamat Idris Déby was in Niger the following day, leading mediation efforts on behalf of the Ecowas and was pictured with Mr Bazoum.

These diplomatic moves according to BBC report, prompted Burkina Faso and Mali to issue a joint statement threatening that if Ecowas intervened militarily, they would withdraw from the bloc and go to the defence of their eastern neighbour.

They said such an intervention would be disastrous and destabilising.

Niger’s junta has not commented on the demand, but vowed to defend the country from any “aggression” by regional or Western powers. It accused France of planning military intervention.

But on Monday evening, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French channel BFM TV the allegation was not true.

According to the Reuters news agency, the evacuation plans will not impact Orano’s operations in Niger as the French nuclear fuel company said most of its staff were Nigerien nationals.

Writing by Abdullahi Lamino