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Western officials: Niger junta warned they’d kill deposed president after any military intervention

The regional ECOWAS bloc said Thursday it had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger after the coup.

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger’s junta told a top U.S. diplomat that they would kill deposed President Mohamed Bazoum if neighboring countries attempted any military intervention to restore his rule, two Western officials told The Associated Press.

Representatives of the junta told U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland of the threat to Bazoum during her visit to the country this week, a Western military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

A U.S. official confirmed that account, also speaking on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Bazoum, who was deposed on July 26, says he is being held hostage at his residence.

The regional ECOWAS bloc said Thursday it had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger after the coup. However, ECOWAS officials gave few details and failed to spell out the make-up, location and proposed date of deployment for any military intervention force.

West African heads of state met in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to discuss next steps after Niger military junta defied their deadline of Sunday to reinstate Bazoum but analysts say the bloc may be running out of options as support fades for a military intervention.

Nine of the 11 heads of state expected to attend were present, including the presidents of Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. The non-ECOWAS leaders of Mauritania and Burundi also participated in the closed-door meeting.

“It is crucial that we prioritize diplomatic negotiations and dialogue as the bedrock of our approach,” said Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who currently chairs the bloc, said before the closed part of the meeting. He said leaders must act with a “sense of urgency,” though appeared to retreat from the bloc’s earlier threat to use force.

Niger was seen as the last country in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert that Western nations could partner with to counter jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people. The international community is scrambling to find a peaceful solution to the country's leadership crisis.

“Let me tell you, any coup that has succeeded beyond 24 hours has come to stay. So, as it is, they are speaking from the point of strength and advantage,” said Oladeinde Ariyo, a security analyst in Nigeria. “So, negotiating with them will have to be on their terms.”

On Wednesday, a Nigerian delegation led by the former Emir of Kano, Khalifa Muhammad Sanusi, met the junta’s leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani. The former emir was one of few people allowed to meet Tchiani.

When Nuland met with the coup leaders earlier this week, she was denied access to both Tchiani and Bazoum. A separate delegation comprised of ECOWAS, the United Nations and the African Union was barred from coming at all.

West Africa's regional bloc has failed to stem past coups throughout the region. Niger is the fourth country in the 15-member state bloc to have experienced a coup in the last three years.

The bloc has imposed harsh economic and travel sanctions.

But as the junta becomes more entrenched, the options for negotiations are becoming limited, said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute.

“It’s very difficult to say what might come out of it, but the fact that the initial deadline passed without intervention and that the (junta) has continued to hold a fairly firm line, indicate that they think they can outlast this pressure,” he said.

The main parties’ positions are dangerously far apart, according to the International Crisis Group, a think tank, which said that if dialogue is going to succeed, each side is going to have to make concessions, which they’ve so far refused to do.

Since seizing power, the junta has cut ties with France and exploited popular grievances toward its former colonial ruler to shore up its support base. It also has asked for help from the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which operates in a handful of African countries and has been accused of committing human rights abuses.

Moscow is using Wagner and other channels of influence to discredit Western nations, asserted Lou Osborn, an investigator with All Eyes on Wagner, a project focusing on the group.

Tactics include using social media to spread rumors about Wagner's upcoming arrival to Niger and employing fake accounts to mobilize demonstrations and spread false narratives, Osborn said. “Their objective is not to support the junta or an alternative political approach but to sow discord, create chaos, destabilize,” she said.

She pointed to a Telegram post on Wednesday by an alleged Wagner operative, Alexander Ivanov, asserting that France had begun the “mass removal of children” likely to be used for slave labor and sexual exploitation.

Neither Russia's government nor Wagner responded to questions.

While there's no reason to believe Russia was behind the coup, it will leverage the opportunity to gain a stronger foothold in the region, something Western nations were trying to avoid, Sahel experts say.

France and the United States have more than 2,500 military personnel in Niger and along with other European nations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance into propping up the country's forces. Much of that aid has now been suspended.

Meanwhile, Niger's approximately 25 million people are feeling the impact of the sanctions.

Some neighborhoods in the capital, Niamey have little access to electricity and there are frequent power cuts across the city. The country gets up to 90% of its power from Nigeria, which has cut off some of the supply.

Since the coup, Hamidou Albade, 48, said he's been unable to run his shop on the outskirts of Niamey because there's been no electricity. He also works as a taxi driver but lost business there, too, because a lot of of his foreign clients have left the city.

“It's very difficult, I just sit at home doing nothing,” he said. Still, he supports the junta. “We’re suffering now, but I know the junta will find a solution to get out of the crisis,” he said.

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By SAM MEDNICK and CHINEDU ASADU Associated Press

Asadu reported from Abuja, Nigeria. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, San Ikpoyi in Lagos, Nigeria, Ellen Knickmeyer and Matthew Lee in Washington, DC contributed.

Categories / Government, International, Politics

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