A French military transport plane carrying Europeans from Niger arrived in Paris Wednesday, in the first such evacuation flight since mutinous soldiers ousted the country’s democratically elected president nearly a week ago and shut its borders.
France, Italy and Spain all announced evacuations from Niger for their citizens and other European nationals, concerned that they risked becoming trapped by the coup that won backing Tuesday from three other West African nations also ruled by mutinous soldiers.
About 600 French nationals want to leave, along with 400 people of other nationalities from Belgians to Danish, French officials said. The first flight carried mostly French nationals, and officials hope to finish the evacuation flights by Wednesday.
With Niger’s air space closed, France coordinated the evacuations with the regime that ousted the nation’s leader, but without withdrawing its support for democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, diplomatic officials said.
The ministry cited recent violence that targeted its embassy in Niamey, the capital, as one of the reasons for its decision to offer evacuation flights to its citizens and other Europeans. Spain’s Defense Ministry announced preparations to evacuate more than 70 nationals, and Italy also said it was arranging a flight.
The evacuations come during a deepening crisis sparked by the coup last week against Bazoum. His apparent overthrow is a blow for Western nations that were working with Niger against West African extremists.
In Niamey hotels, Europeans and other nationalities, including some Americans, packed bags. At the airport, hundreds of people lined up for hours waiting to leave on French evacuation flights.
A former French military official who had been training the Nigerien army as a civilian told The Associated Press that he was departing even though his “job is not finished.” Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, he said the military takeover took many people by surprise.
The West African regional body known as ECOWAS announced travel and economic sanctions against Niger on Sunday and said it could use force if coup leaders don’t reinstate Bazoum within one week.
The U,N, special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simão, held out hope that bloodshed could be avoided.
He said during a virtual news conference Tuesday he expects ECOWAS to go ahead with the deployment of troops to Niger if Bazoum isn’t restored to power. But “I believe that other efforts are underway, so I hope the use of force will not be necessary,” if “everybody talks in good faith (and) wants to avoid bloodshed.”
The new junta got backing from the military governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.
Mali and Burkina Faso said in a joint statement that “any military intervention against Niger will be considered a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.” The two countries also denounced ECOWAS’ economic sanctions as “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane” and refused to apply them.
ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger, as well as freezing Nigerien assets held in regional central banks. Niger relies heavily on foreign aid, and sanctions could further impoverish its more than 25 million people.
Mali and Burkina Faso have each undergone two coups since 2020, as soldiers overthrew governments claiming they could do a better job fighting increasing jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. ECOWAS has suspended them from the bloc, but never threatened to use force.
Guinea, another country under military rule since 2021, also issued a statement in support of Niger’s junta and urged ECOWAS to “come to its senses.”
The evacuations followed violence Sunday that targeted the French Embassy, with protesters burning down a door and smashing windows before the Nigerien army dispersed them. Thousands of pro-junta supporters took to Niamey’s streets. Some waved Russian flags along with signs reading “Down with France” and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling the international community to stay away.
There has been no clear explanation of the references to Russia, but some demonstrators regard it as a symbol of anti-Western feelings. Some may also reflect support for the Russian mercenary group Wagner’s reputation for ruthlessly suppressing militants.
Niger could be following in the same footsteps as Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which saw protesters waving Russian flags after their coups, analysts say.
Niger’s coup could also embolden jihadi violence, some say.
Boubacar Moussa, a former member of an al-Qaida linked group known as JNIM, said the military overthrow is exactly what the jihadis want because it will distract and weaken the army. “Jihadis are very supportive of this coup that happened in Niger, because it will allow them to become very strong,” he said.
Moussa, who spoke to AP in Niamey, is part of a nationwide program to bring back jihadis, reintegrate them into society and use their help in counterterrorism efforts. It was spearheaded by Bazoum when he was minister of interior and is intended as an alternative to a military solution to stem violence across the country. The AP cannot verify that Moussa actively fought for JNIM.