Niger Capital Is Calm After Coup

ABUJA, Nigeria — A day after soldiers in Niger overthrew President Mamadou Tandja, the military junta on Friday identified its chief as Squadron Leader Salou Djibo and said civil servants would run ministries and regions until a new government was formed, news reports said.


Colonel Djibrilla Hamidou Hima, center, member of the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), outside the military compound in Niamey where ousted President Mamadou Tandja is being held.

Reuters reported from Niamey, the capital of Niger, a landlocked, uranium-producing country, that the city was calm Friday after a military assault on the presidential palace where the government was meeting the day before. Other reports said the presidential palace was under heavy guard Friday.

After a day of gunfire, explosions and nonstop military music on the radio on Thursday, the whereabouts of President Tandja remained unknown. Reuters said lightly armed soldiers patrolled sporadically in Niamey on Friday as schools, banks and markets reopened.

The coup leaders, who also included two colonels, took power in the name of what they called the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, news reports said. Little information has been released about Squadron Leader Djibo, but news reports said a heavily armed unit under his command played a major role in Thursday’s fighting.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the African Union condemned the takeover and urged the restoration of constitutional order. The coup leaders have so far given no indication how long they plan to hold power, but urged citizens and the international community to support their actions.

After the gun battle on Thursday, Boureima Soumana Sory Diallo, a high official at the state media regulatory agency under Mr. Tandja, said he did not know where the president was.

“They told us he has been taken by the soldiers,” he said.

A spokesman for the American Embassy in Niamey, Robert Tate, said, “We’ve gotten several unconfirmed reports that he is in the custody of the insurgents.”

Late Thursday, a colonel who claimed to represent the coup leaders said on state media that they had decided to suspend the Constitution and dissolve the nation’s institutions, news agencies reported.

Though he was elected twice, Mr. Tandja has faced increasing international opprobrium and opposition at home as he has steadily rolled back hard-fought democratic gains in the past year.

Bidding to stay in power indefinitely, Mr. Tandja dissolved the National Assembly and the nation’s high court last year, pushing through a new Constitution that gave him more power, extended his tenure by three years and removed term limits.

Last week thousands demonstrated against him, and Thursday’s coup attempt followed a year of political tension and uncertainty in Niger, a West African country that is one of the poorest countries in the world. Niger’s postcolonial history has been punctuated by coups, but the nation is also rich in uranium deposits, drawing French commercial interests to what was once one of France’s colonial possessions.

As of Thursday evening, the government had made no announcement about its status, even as martial music continued on the radio. A wrestling program replaced the evening news broadcast on state television. The streets were deserted and shops shut early. Residents and local journalists said it seemed all but certain that the president had been captured by his own soldiers.

“If the president was free, he would have made a declaration by now,” said Mohammed Bazoum, vice president of an opposition party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, in a telephone interview.

Earlier, heavy gunfire around the whitewashed presidential palace lasted nearly two hours, witnesses said, with machine-gun and shell blasts audible. “We could hear it right here at the embassy,” Mr. Tate said. He said the fighting, involving elements of the presidential guard, the army and the state security services, had caused several casualties.

“It was a band of soldiers that burst into the presidential palace,” said Habou Adi, a radio journalist. “The buildings were attacked with machine-gun fire.”

Witnesses described scenes of panic as the shooting began.

“I was right near the presidential palace, and people started running everywhere,” said Harry Birnholz, an American who runs an American government-financed anticorruption program in Niger. “There was heavy machine-gun fire. There was so much tension building up since last spring, with all the games this government has been playing.”

The regional bloc of West African states took the unusual step of suspending Niger after Mr. Tandja’s campaign to extend his rule, and the United States cut off all but humanitarian aid. With the unresolved political crisis in the background, the nation also faces food shortages, a recurrent problem in a land that has known full-fledged famine.

“We’ve been in a crisis situation,” said Mr. Bazoum, the opposition official. “This is exactly what we were afraid of, a military resolution. Tandja could have avoided this.”

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.

[original]

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