France plans to evacuate hundreds of French and European citizens from Niger over the next 24 hours, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, days after a junta seized power in the west African country.
Niger’s borders have been closed to commercial flights since military officers ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and his democratically elected government last Wednesday, in the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa.
The coup has sent shockwaves across the Sahel region, where Niger’s Western allies fear losing influence to Russia, and has raised security fears as groups linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda have been gaining ground in the area for years.
France has had troops in the Sahel for a decade helping to fight an Islamist insurgency, but some locals say they want the former colonial ruler to stop intervening in their affairs.
On Sunday, supporters of the junta burned French flags and attacked the French embassy in Niger’s capital, Niamey, prompting police to fire volleys of tear gas in response.
“Considering the ongoing coup in Niger and the fact that the situation continues to be worrying, we decided to make sure that the French citizens who want to leave Niger can do so,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told France’s LCI TV, adding that evacuations would be carried out by planes.
She estimated that hundreds of French citizens and hundreds of citizens from other EU countries wanted to be evacuated. The evacuation will start later on Tuesday, she said, adding that she hoped it would be over in the next 24 hours.
Italy also said on Tuesday it would offer a special flight to repatriate its nationals from Niamey, and Colonna said European countries sending evacuation planes would coordinate their efforts.
The United States, Germany, and Italy have troops in Niger on counter-insurgency and training missions. There has been no announcement of troops being evacuated so far.
Colonna said France had talked with authorities in Niger to make sure the evacuation could proceed safely.
“An operation of this kind requires getting in touch with those who are in control,” she said, adding that it in no way meant any recognition of the junta.
Colonna had told France’s BFM TV late on Monday that the protest in front of the embassy and the ensuing accusations that France shot at the crowd – which it denies – “have all the usual ingredients of destabilisation, the Russian-African way”.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, last week welcomed the coup in Niger, and said his forces were available to restore order.
The Kremlin said the situation in Niger was “cause for serious concern” and called for a swift return to constitutional order.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.
A spokesperson for the EU Commission said EU utilities had sufficient inventories of natural uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks.
French nuclear fuels company Orano said its activities were continuing in Niger and would not be affected by the evacuations, as 99% of staff were Nigerien nationals.
Regional bloc ECOWAS has imposed sanctions, including border closure, a halt in all financial transactions and a national assets freeze, and said it could authorise force to reinstate Bazoum, who is still locked in his palace.
But the juntas of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea all voiced their support for the coup’s leaders on Monday.
Reporting by Michel Rose, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Layli Foroudi, Blandine Henault, Charlotte van Campenhout; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Nellie Peyton; Editing by Christina Fincher, Alex Richardson, Alexandra Hudson