Coup leaders in Niger have accused French forces of freeing captured “terrorists” and breaching a ban on the country’s air space in an attempt to destabilise Niger, as France promptly rejected the allegations.
Soldiers from the country’s presidential guard seized power and detained President Mohammad Bazoum on July 26, triggering international condemnation and the threat of a military incursion by neighbouring West African nations. The coup leaders closed Nigerien air space on Sunday and have warned against any foreign intervention.
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In a video address on Wednesday, the coup leaders’ spokesperson, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, claimed France had released 16 “terrorist elements” who had then gathered to plan an attack on Nigerien military positions in areas along the border.
He claimed that a unit of the National Guard was attacked at 6:30am (05:30 GMT) in Bourkou Bourkou, about 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) away from the Samira gold mine in the Tillaberi region.
The colonel also claimed that a French military plane breached a ban on the country’s airspace.
“We are witnessing a real plan of destabilisation of our country, orchestrated by French forces,” Abdramane said. The spokesperson did not provide any evidence for the claims.
France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs rejected the accusations and said its aircraft movements were part of an earlier agreement with Nigerien forces, the Reuters news agency reported.
It said French troops stationed in Niger were there at the request of the legitimate authorities.
“No attack against a Nigerien camp took place,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
A French government official told the AFP news agency that “no terrorist has been freed by French forces.”
Experts have warned that a potential power vacuum in Niger could be exploited by armed groups.
“Tillaberi is an area where you see a lot of activities from groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL,” said Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris reporting from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
“And this was feared since day one of the coup that some member of armed groups in the region may take advantage of what is happening,” Idris said.
ECOWAS emergency summit
France is the former colonial power of, and has maintained strong ties with, Niger, with between 1,000 and 1,500 French soldiers stationed in the country. But the coup leaders have revoked five military cooperation agreements and suspended broadcasts of French international news outlets France 24 and RFI.
The coup leaders’ claims come a day before the Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS) gathers in Abuja to address the Niger crisis.
At a previous summit last week, ECOWAS warned it could intervene militarily and set August 6 as a deadline for the military to restore democracy and free Bazoum. No military action followed when the deadline lapsed.
The regional bloc’s chief Bola Tinubu, also president of ECOWAS’s strongest member Nigeria, faced opposition – both nationally and internationally – for raising the prospect of military intervention.
Mali and Burkina Faso – which were suspended by ECOWAS following coups there – have pledged their support to the coup leaders in Niger.
The seizure of power in Niger is the ninth coup in the Sahel region in three years.