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Niger junta warned they’d kill deposed president after any military intervention, according to U.S. officials

Meanwhile, the regional ECOWAS bloc says it has directed the deployment of a ‘standby force’ to restore democracy in Niger

Demonstrators gather in front of the Embassy of Niger in Paris, in support of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and ECOWAS, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023
Demonstrators gather in front of the Embassy of Niger in Paris, in support of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and ECOWAS, on Aug. 5, 2023.Sophie Garcia (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. They spoke to the AP shortly before the West African bloc ECOWAS said it had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger, without giving details about its make-up, location or proposed date of deployment.

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.

Separately, the leaders of nine of the 15 ECOWAS member states met Thursday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to discuss their next steps after the junta defied their Sunday deadline to reinstate Bazoum.

Asked for clarification of their statement, ECOWAS commission president Omar Alieu Touray said he could only reaffirm the decisions by “the military authorities in the subregion to deploy a standby force of the community.”

Financing had been discussed and “appropriate measures have been taken,” he said.

He blamed the junta for any hardship caused by the sanctions imposed on Niger and said further actions by the bloc would be taken jointly, not by any single country.

“It is not one country against another country. The community has instruments to which all members have subscribed to,” he said.

A former British Army official who has worked in Nigeria told The Associated Press the ECOWAS statement could be seen as the green light for members to begin assembling their forces with the ultimate aim of restoring constitutional order.

In regard to the use of force, the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said there was currently nothing in place other than Nigerian forces. Without enablers and the support of other regional armies, it’s unlikely they’d enter, the official said.

ECOWAS has imposed harsh economic and travel sanctions, but analysts say it may be running out of options as support fades for intervention. The bloc has failed to stem past coups in the region: Niger is the fourth of its member states to undergo a coup in the last three years.

Nnamdi Obasi, a senior adviser with the Crisis Group think tank, said ECOWAS should further explore diplomacy in Niger.

“We need to tread cautiously on the idea of using force in resolving the crisis. The use of force could lead to unintended and catastrophic consequences with unpredictable outcomes,” said Obasi.

Such a military intervention could also trigger a “major regional conflict” between democratic governments and an alliance of military regimes, he said.

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 met with the junta’s leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani. However, Nuland 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.

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 in Niger and employing fake accounts to mobilize demonstrations and spread false narratives, Osborn 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 his foreign clients have left.

“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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