Niger's Neighbors and the UN Seek to Deescalate Tensions With Last-Minute Diplomacy

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) -- Nigeriens awoke Tuesday to deepening uncertainty about whether a regional bloc will follow through on its threat to use military force to try to reinstall ousted President Mohamed Bazoum or if last-minute diplomacy will prevail, nearly two weeks after mutinous soldiers overthrew the country's democratically elected leader.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS had given the mutinous soldiers until Sunday to release and reinstall Bazoum or they threatened to use force.

Members from ECOWAS, the United Nations and the African Union were expected to join talks in the capital, Niamey, on Tuesday, a foreign official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

On Monday, acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with the coup leaders in Niger and said they refused to allow her to meet with Bazoum, whom she described as under "virtual house arrest." She described the mutinous officers as unreceptive to her appeals to start negotiations and restore constitutional rule.

"These conversations were extremely frank and at times quite difficult because, again, we are pushing for a negotiated solution. It was not easy to get traction there. They are quite firm in their view of how they want to proceed," Nuland told reporters on a call from Niamey.

Talks are expected throughout the week. ECOWAS is expected to meet again Thursday in Abuja, the capital of neighboring Nigeria, to discuss the situation.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to Radio France International on Monday, said diplomacy is the preferred way forward, and he couldn't speculate about the future of 1,100 U.S. military personnel in Niger.

"What we are seeing in Niger is extremely troubling and provides nothing to the country and its people. On the contrary, the interruption of this constitutional order puts us, and many other countries, in a position where we have to stop our aid, our support, and this will not benefit the people of Niger," Blinken said.

Niger has been a crucial partner to the United States and other European countries, which viewed it as one of the last democratic nations in the vast Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert, that they could partner with to fight growing jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. If deemed a coup by the U.S., Niger will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and other aid.

Coups have been rampant in the region in recent years. Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have had two each since 2020, and ECOWAS had little influence in stopping them. The bloc's harsh response to Niger, by imposing economic and travel sanctions and threatening force, is an attempt to change course. But the junta doesn't appear open to dialogue. On Sunday, it closed the country's airspace and accused foreign powers of preparing an attack.

Analysts and diplomats say the window for military intervention is closing and without regional support for the use of force, ECOWAS and others are searching for a way out.

"A lot of the tough talk from the region and beyond is perhaps more a reflection of how they wish they had responded to previous coups in Mali, Burkina and Guinea," said Cameron Hudson, a former official for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Similarly, Washington and Paris will now have to make their own hard choices about working with junta leaders on counterterrorism or risk ceding hard-won ground to jihadist groups and possibly Russia, he said.

The junta, led by Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, has been exploiting grievances among the population toward its former colonial ruler France and has asked the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, for help. Wagner already operates in a handful of African countries, including Mali, and has been accused of committing human rights abuses.

Nearly two weeks since the coup and Niamey's mostly quiet streets are interspersed with pro-junta rallies, anti-foreign rhetoric and residents waving Russian flags.

The ruling military has called on the population to defend the country and groups of self-organized, mostly young people gather each night at some dozen roundabouts in the capital to search cars for weapons and look for foreign forces. It's unclear how much genuine support there is for the junta, but it appears to have rallied some civil society and political groups to its side.

"It was not the military that provoked it. It's a consequence of political and social policy choices," said Amadou Roufai Mahaman, general secretary for the Union of Pan-African Patriots, a political opposition group.

While the region squabbles about a path forward, jihadis in Niger have been celebrating the chaos and greater freedom of movement since countries like France suspended military operations. A couple hundred French soldiers had been conducting joint operations with the Nigerien military in the tri-border area between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, and provided air support to Niger forces. But those operations are now on hold. France has some 1,500 soldiers in Niger.

Boubacar Moussa, a former jihadi fighter who joined a program that encourages fighters to defect and reintegrate into society, said he's received multiple calls from active jihadis in that region who gloat about how much the coup has benefitted them.

"People are very happy with the coup," he said. "Jihadis want ECOWAS to intervene because if they do they'll reach Niamey."