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European militaries evacuate foreign nationals from Niger as regional tensions rise after coup

French and other nationals gather at the international Airport to be airlifted back to France on a French military aircraft, in Niamey, Niger, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.
French and other nationals gather at the international Airport to be airlifted back to France on a French military aircraft, in Niamey, Niger, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Copyright Sam Mednick/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Sam Mednick/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with wires
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Foreign nationals lined up outside an airport in Niger's capital on Wednesday morning to wait for a French military evacuation flight, while a regional bloc continued talks about its response to the military coup that took place last week.

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France, Italy and Spain all announced evacuations for their citizens and other Europeans in the capital, Niamey, following concerns that they could become trapped after soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum and seized power.

The Biden administration has yet to announce any decision on evacuation for American forces, diplomats, aid workers and other US citizens in Niger, an important counter-terror base for the United States in the Sahel. Some Americans, however, have left with the help of the Europeans.

Sam Mednick/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Nigeriens, some holding Russian flags, participate in a march called by supporters of coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023.Sam Mednick/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

France’s first two flights evacuated more than 350 French nationals, as well as people from Niger and at least 10 other countries, the French Foreign Ministry said. The Paris airport authority said two more evacuation flights are scheduled to land Wednesday afternoon.

Some 1,200 French citizens are registered at the French Embassy, said the Foreign Ministry, and about half have asked to be evacuated.

An Italian military aircraft landed in Rome on Wednesday with 99 passengers, including 21 Americans and civilians from other countries, said the Italian defence ministry. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said, “In some way, we were authorized by the new government, which gave permission for the operation."

Germany, which has encouraged its civilians in Niger to evacuate on French flights, said that it does not currently see any need to evacuate the approximately 100 troops it has in the country, largely connected to the UN mission in neighbouring Mali.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said he spoke with the German commander at the air base in Niamey on Tuesday, “and he told me clearly they are not at all worried about their safety at the moment; they are in close contact with the Nigerien military; they are driving out accompanied by the Nigerien military.” Supplies also are assured, he said.

US officials have stayed engaged in trying to roll back the armed takeover, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling Niger’s president late Tuesday to express “continued unwavering support.”

A US pullout from Niger would risk Washington’s longstanding counter-terror investments in the West African country, including a major air base in Agadez that is key for efforts against armed extremists across the Sahara and Sahel. The United States has roughly 1,000 forces in Niger, and helps train some Nigerien forces.

Leaving Niger would also risk yielding the country to the influence of Russia and its Wagner mercenary group, which already have a significant presence in Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan.

Before sunrise Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside the terminal at Niamey’s airport hoping to leave, after a French flight was cancelled the night before. Some slept on the floor, while others watched television or talked on the phone.

Fatahoulaye Hassane Midou/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
With the headquarters of the ruling party burning in the back, supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger, Thursday, July 27 2023.Fatahoulaye Hassane Midou/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

A passenger who did not want to be named for security reasons said they tried to shield their children from what was happening, telling them “just that they’re going home.”

The passenger said they feared reprisal attacks against civilians if Niger's regional neighbours follow through on threats to intervene militarily.

Niamey has calmed after protests supporting the junta turned violent Sunday, but some say the mood is still tense.

During Tuesday’s evacuation flights at the airport, a passenger who did not want to be named for security reasons said that Nigerien soldiers raised middle fingers at waiting evacuees as the soldiers sped off after escorting an Italian military convoy to the airport.

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On Sunday, West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it would use force against the junta if it didn’t release and reinstate the president within a week. The announcement was immediately rejected by neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, all of which are run by mutinous soldiers who toppled their governments.

Mali and Burkina Faso’s leaders said military intervention in Niger “would be tantamount to a declaration of war” against them.

The defence chiefs of ECOWAS’ 15 members will meet in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, from Wednesday to Friday to discuss the next steps in resolving the crisis, the bloc said in a statement. An ECOWAS delegation led by a former Nigerian head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, is on standby to go to Niger once logistics have been arranged, said an aid to the president who was not authorized to speak to the media.

At a virtual United Nations meeting on Tuesday night, the U.N. special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel said that non-military efforts are underway to restore democracy in Niger.

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“One week can be more than enough if everybody talks in good faith if everybody wants to avoid bloodshed,” said Leonardo Santos Simao. But, he added, “different member states are preparing themselves to use force if necessary.”

Others in the diplomatic community said the use of force is a real option.

ECOWAS is resolved to use military force after economic and travel sanctions have failed to roll back other coups, said a Western diplomat in Niamey, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

The M62 Movement, an activist group that has organized pro-Russia and anti-French protests, called for residents in Niamey to mobilize and block the airport until foreign military forces leave the country.

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“Any evacuation of Europeans (should be) conditional on the immediate departure of foreign military forces,” Mahaman Sanoussi, the national coordinator for the group, said in a statement.

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