Niger Crisis Deepens as France Plans Evacuation and Coup Leaders Get Support From Neighboring Juntas

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) -- France prepared to evacuate French and European nationals from Niger on Tuesday, telling them to carry no more than a small bag, after a military coup there won backing from three other West African nations ruled by mutinous soldiers.

The French Foreign Ministry in Paris cited recent violence that targeted the French Embassy in Niamey, the capital, as one of the reasons for the decision.

The closure of Niger's airspace also "leaves our compatriots unable to leave the country by their own means," the ministry said.

The evacuation comes amid a deepening crisis sparked by the coup last week against Niger's democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

The evacuation was starting Tuesday for French and European citizens who wish to leave, the French ministry said in a statement. It gave no other details. It estimates that several hundred French citizens are in Niger at the moment.

In hotels in the capital, French and other European citizens, including some who have worked in the country for years, packed their bags awaiting news of where and when the evacuation would happen.

"My job is not finished, I hope the situation will finish and one day soon we can come back," a former French military official who is now training the Nigerien army as a civilian told The Associated Press. "This happened very quickly and no one saw this coming. I was really surprised," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The West African regional body known as ECOWAS announced travel and economic sanctions against Niger on Sunday and said it would use force if the coup leaders don't reinstate Bazoum within one week. Bazoum's government was one of the West's last democratic partners against West African extremists.

In a joint statement, the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso said that "any military intervention against Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali."

Col. Abdoulaye Maiga, Mali's state minister for territorial administration and decentralization, read the statement on Malian state TV Monday evening. The two countries also denounced the ECOWAS economic sanctions as "illegal, illegitimate and inhumane" and refused to apply them.

ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger, as well as freezing Nigerien assets held in regional central banks. Niger relies heavily on foreign aid, and sanctions could further impoverish its more than 25 million people.

Mali and Burkina Faso have each undergone two coups since 2020, as soldiers overthrew governments claiming they could do a better job fighting increasing jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. ECOWAS has sanctioned both countries and suspended them from the bloc, but never threatened to use force.

Also on Sunday, Guinea, another country under military rule since 2021, issued a statement in support of Niger's junta and urged ECOWAS to "come to its senses."

"The sanctions measures advocated by ECOWAS, including military intervention, are an option that would not be a solution to the current problem, but would lead to a human disaster whose consequences could extend beyond Niger's borders," said Ibrahima Sory Bangoura, general of the brigade, in a statement from the ruling party. He added that Guinea would not apply the sanctions.

Niger's coup will embolden jihadi violence, increase recruitment across the country and threaten regional stability, a former jihadi member said last week.

Moussa Boubacar, a former member of the Islamic State group, said the military overthrow is exactly what the jihadis want because it will distract and weaken the army. "Jihadis are very supportive of this coup that happened in Niger, because it will allow them to become very strong," he said.

Boubacar, who spoke to the AP in Niamey, is part of a nationwide program to bring back jihadis, reintegrate them into society and use their help in counterterrorism efforts. It was spearheaded by Bazoum when he was minister of interior and is intended as an alternative to a military solution to stem violence across the country. The AP cannot verify that Boubacar actively fought for the Islamic State.

In anticipation of the ECOWAS decision Sunday, thousands of pro-junta supporters took to the streets in Niamey, denouncing France, waving Russian flags along with signs reading "Down with France" and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling the international community to stay away.

There has been no clear explanation of the references to Russia, but some demonstrators regard the country as symbolizing their anti-Western feelings.

Protesters also burned down a door and smashed windows at the French Embassy before the Nigerien army dispersed them.

The evacuation was announced by France's embassy in an email sent to French nationals in Niamey. The message said the evacuation would be an airlift and that the spouses and children of French nationals were also eligible. It asked people to pack one small bag per person and to also take water, a bit of food, phones and batteries.

Niger could be following in the same footsteps as Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which saw protesters waving Russian flags after their respective coups, analysts say. After the second coup in Burkina Faso in September, protesters also attacked the French Embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, and damaged and ransacked the Institut Francais, France's international cultural promotion organization.

If ECOWAS uses force, it could also trigger violence between civilians supporting the coup and those against it, Niger analysts say.

While unlikely, "the consequences on civilians of such an approach if putschists chose confrontation would be catastrophic," said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.

Lyammouri does not see a "military intervention happening because of the violence that could trigger," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday commended the resolve of the ECOWAS leadership to "defend constitutional order in Niger" after the sanctions announcement, and joined the bloc in calling for the immediate release of Bazoum and his family.

Also Sunday, junta spokesman Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane banned the use of social media to put out messages he described as harmful to state security. He also claimed without evidence that Bazoum's government had authorized the French to carry out strikes to free Bazoum.

Observers believe Bazoum is being held at his house in Niamey. The first photos of him since the coup appeared Sunday evening, sitting on a couch smiling beside Chad President Mahamat Deby, who had flown in to mediate between the government and the junta.

Both the United States and France have sent troops and hundreds of millions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid in recent years to Niger, which was a French colony until 1960. The country was seen as the last working with the West against extremism in a Francophone region where anti-French sentiment opened the way for the Russian private military group Wagner.

After neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso ousted the French military and began working with Wagner mercenaries, Blinken visited Niger in March to strengthen ties and announce $150 million in direct assistance, calling the country "a model of democracy."

The U.S. will consider cutting aid if the coup is successful, the State Department said Monday. Aid is "very much in the balance depending on the outcome of the actions in the country," said department spokesman Matt Miller. "U.S. assistance hinges on continued democratic governance in Niger."

The sanctions could be disastrous and Niger needs to find a solution to avoid them, Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou told French media outlet Radio France Internationale on Sunday.

"When people say there's an embargo, land borders are closed, air borders are closed, it's extremely difficult for people. ... Niger is a country that relies heavily on the international community," he said.

In the capitalr, many people live in makeshift shelters tied together with slats of wood, sheets and plastic tarps because they can't pay rent. They scramble daily to make enough money to feed their children.

Since the 1990s, the 15-nation ECOWAS has tried to protect democracies against the threat of coups, with mixed success.

Four nations are run by military governments in West and Central Africa, where there have been nine successful or attempted coups since 2020.

In the 1990s, ECOWAS intervened in Liberia during its civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa and one that left many wary of intervening in internal conflicts. In 2017, ECOWAS intervened in Gambia to prevent the new president's predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, from disrupting the handover of power. Around 7,000 troops from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal entered the country, according to the Global Observatory, which provides analysis on peace and security issues. The intervention was largely seen as accomplishing its mission.