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Foreign nationals are evacuating Niger as regional tensions rise

French soldiers assist mostly French nationals in a bus waiting to be airlifted back to France on a French military aircraft, at the international Airport in Niamey, Niger, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.
Sam Mednick
/
AP
French soldiers assist mostly French nationals in a bus waiting to be airlifted back to France on a French military aircraft, at the international Airport in Niamey, Niger, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

NIAMEY, Niger — Foreign nationals lined up outside an airport in Niger's capital Wednesday morning waiting for a third evacuation flight, while a regional bloc continued to talks about its response to the coup that took place last week.

French forces in the capital, Niamey, evacuated hundreds of mostly French nationals to Paris on two flights Tuesday, following concerns that their citizens and other Europeans risked becoming trapped by last week's military coup, which ousted and detained President Mohamed Bazoum.

France, Italy and Spain all announced evacuations for their citizens and other Europeans. The United States has yet to announce plans for an evacuation, however some have left the with the help of the Europeans.

An Italian military aircraft landed in Rome Wednesday with 99 passengers, including 21 Americans and civilians from other countries, said the Italian defense minister. The first of two French flights that landed in Paris overnight had 12 babies among 262 people aboard, most of them French but including evacuees from Niger, Portugal, Belgium, Ethiopia and Lebanon, France's Foreign Ministry said.

Before sunrise Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside the terminal at Niamey's airport hoping to leave, after a third flight was canceled the night before. Some slept on the floor, others watched video games or talked on the phone.

Some parents tried to shield their children from what was happening.

"I haven't told them very much, just that they're going home," said a passenger who did not want to be named for security reasons.

"If ECOWAS (a West African regional bloc) intervenes, populations can attack ECOWAS nationals here. They've already made threats," he said.

On Sunday, 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 neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, all of which are run by mutinous soldiers who toppled their governments.

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

Niger was seen as one of the region's last democracies and a partner Western countries could work with to beat back the jihadi violence that's wracked the region. The United States, France and other European countries have poured millions of dollars of military aid and assistance into the country.

On Tuesday, United States said its Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with President Bazoum and underscored that the U.S. rejects efforts to overturn the constitutional order, and stands with the people of Niger, ECOWAS, the African Union and international partners in support of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

The defense chiefs of ECOWAS' 15 members will meet in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, from Wednesday to Friday to discuss next steps in resolving the crisis, the bloc said in a statement.

At a virtual United Nations meeting on Tuesday night, the U.N. special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel said that efforts other than the threat of force are underway to restore democracy in Niger.

"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."

But some in the diplomatic community believe the use of force could be 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.

Niamey has calmed after protests supporting the junta turned violent Sunday when demonstrators attacked the French embassy and set fire to a door.

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 the Nigerien military, which was escorting an Italian military convoy into the airport, sped off with soldiers who raised their middle fingers at the passengers.

That same night, 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.

"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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press