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France is set to start evacuating its citizens and other Europeans in Niger from Tuesday after a military junta in the west African country seized power last week.
Mohamed Bazoum, regarded as the west’s staunchest ally in the Sahel, was overthrown as president last Wednesday, bringing further instability to the troubled region after military coups in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years.
Over the weekend, a group of West African leaders led by Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, threatened to take military action against the new junta in Niger if it did not restore the toppled democratic government within seven days. The US, France, EU and Britain condemned the coup and suspended aid to the country.
Thousands of pro-coup demonstrators surrounded the French embassy in Niamey, Niger’s capital, on Sunday chanting anti-French and pro-Russian slogans. The junta accused former colonial power France of trying to orchestrate a military operation to rescue Bazoum, which Paris denies.
The French foreign ministry said on Tuesday it would start evacuations.
“Given the situation in Niamey, the violence that took place against our embassy the day before yesterday and the closure of the airspace which is preventing our citizens from leaving by their own means, France is preparing the evacuation of its citizens and of European citizens who wish to leave the country,” the French foreign ministry said.
The EU has offered to evacuate any of its staff in Niger who would like to leave the country, according to the bloc’s foreign service.
“The EU has decided to offer EU personnel the possibility to leave on a voluntary basis . . . but we have not taken any formal decision to evacuate,” said Nabila Massrali, foreign policy spokesperson.
“The presence of EU staff remains at the moment . . . [But] the EU team present in Niamey has the possibility to leave,” she added.
Ruling juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso warned on Monday that any military intervention to restore the deposed government in Niamey would be regarded as a “declaration of war” on their countries.
France has 1,500 soldiers in the country, and Niger had become its main base for troops fighting jihadis in the area, after they were withdrawn from Mali last year. The US also has 1,100 troops and a drone base from which it monitors the activity of jihadi terrorist groups across the Sahel.
Following the backlash outside the French embassy, Paris warned on Sunday that President Emmanuel Macron would “not tolerate any attack against France and its interests and will respond immediately and intractably” to any provocation.
France’s Orano has uranium mining operations in Niger.
The European Commission on Tuesday said there were no risks to the bloc’s uranium supplies from the coup. “There is no supply risk as such when it comes to the EU,” said Adalbert Jahnz, commission spokesman. “EU utilities have sufficient inventories of natural uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks. In the medium- and long-term there are enough deposits on the world market to cover EU needs, that is something we have ascertained.”
French foreign minister Catherine Colonna on Monday denied accusations that French forces had shot at the crowds outside the embassy, and told BFM TV that the protests and wave of allegations against France “had all the usual ingredients of destabilisation, the Russian-African way.”
There is no indication that Russia was involved in planning last week’s coup. But Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group which is an important part of the Kremlin’s power projection in Africa, has hailed the coup as good news and offered the services of his forces.
The junta that seized power in Niger last week has since arrested senior politicians. These include the head of Bazoum’s ruling party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, the minister of mines and the petroleum minister, Mahamane Sani Mahamadou, a son of Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou.
The transport minister, interior minister and a former defence minister, were also held as part of a widening crackdown.