Niger soldiers say coup 'patriotic'

Leaders suspend constitution, dissolve institutions and seek international support.

    Colonel Karimou called for national and
    international support for the coup

    "We ask the population to remain calm and to stay united around the ideals of the CSRD which will be able to make Niger an example of democracy and good governance, in keeping with other countries and the price of peace and stability," Karimou said.

    He gave no indication how long the military intended to hold power but stressed that all of Niger's treaties would be respected and asked that the international community have faith in the CSRD.

    "We reaffirm our commitment to the treaties and conventions previously signed by the state of Niger. We call on national and international opinions to support us in our patriotic action to save Niger and its population from poverty, deception and corruption."

    President seized

    Tandja was supposed to step down last year but moved to extend his term [EPA]

    Earlier on Thursday, at least three people were killed after soldiers led by Colonel Adamou Harouna stormed the presidential palace in a four-hour gun battle in the heart of the capital, Niamey, military sources and witnesses said.

    A journalist in the capital, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said Mamadou Tandja, the president, was taken captive.

    "The rebels have taken the president to a certain place, pending he submits his resignation," he told Al Jazeera. "They want the president to resign by himself.

    "Armed soldiers are now controlling the presidential palace and they also took government ministers when they took the president."

    A Niamey resident told the Reuters news agency later that calm had returned to the capital and tanks had taken up positions close to a military barracks at Tondibia, about 12 km west of the capital, where Tandja and some members of his government were rumoured to be held.

    Rising tensions

    Tensions had been high in Niger since Tandja dissolved parliament last year and changed the constitution to extend his rule following a referendum, a move that drew widespread criticism at home and led to international sanctions.

    Niger at a glance


      Population of 15.3 million according to a 2009 estimate
      Declared independence from France in 1960
      Official language French with several local languages also spoken
      Main religion Islam with Christian minority in south and traditional African religions also practised
      One of world's leading producers of uranium, accounting for about 7.5 per cent of world's supply
      Two-thirds of country is desert, with only fertile area along Niger River
    Sources: Reuters, CIA World Factbook

    In June, Tandja dissolved the constitutional court that had ruled against him and assumed the power to rule by decree, brushing aside international criticism of the move, saying he was answerable only to the people of Niger.

    Tandja was supposed to step down in December following two five-year terms in a row, but his so-called reforms removed most checks on his authority, abolished term limits and gave him an initial three more years in power without an election, an extension he said he needed to complete large-scale investment projects.

    Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Niamey in November, calling for Tandja to resign.

    The opposition Co-ordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic (CFDR), which comprises political parties, human rights and labour organisations, denounced the August 4 referendum as a "coup" and called for fresh elections to be organised.

    The opposition also boycotted October 20 legislative elections, after which the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) suspended Niger as a member and the European Union put a freeze on its development aid.

    The US terminated trade benefits while former colonial power France also criticised the president's actions.

    US reaction

    In Washington on Thursday, PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the state department, appeared to have little sympathy for Tandja.

    "Clearly, we do not in any way, shape or form, you know, defend violence of this nature, but clearly we think this underscores that Niger needs to move ahead with the elections and the formation of a new government," he said.

    "President Tandja has been trying to extend his mandate in office. And obviously, that may well have been, you know, an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today."

    Themon Djaksam, an African affairs analyst, said there was growing disenchantment among Nigeriens towards Tandja.

    "[He has] not been delivering as they had expected," he told Al Jazeera.

    "I think the president is going to have a few loyal [supporters]. But there's no doubt that the coup is going to be largely supported [in Niger] because there's a growing disenchantment with the situation generally."

    Tandja has ruled the uranium-rich Saharan state since 1999.

    And despite the political turmoil, Niger has attracted billions of dollars in investment from major international firms seeking to tap its vast mineral resources.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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