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Europeans Evacuate Niger Amid Risks of Wider Conflict

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More than 250 Europeans were evacuated from the West African nation of Niger on Tuesday on a plane sent by France, nearly a week after a coup threatened to set off a regional conflict

The evacuations came less than a day after two neighboring states, Burkina Faso and Mali, said that they would join forces to defend Niger’s new military junta if a bloc of other regional countries carried through on a threat to intervene unless the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, was returned to office.

Marie Bertrand, who said she worked for a French company in Niger, packed hastily after receiving a message to evacuate on Tuesday morning from the French embassy, which was attacked on Sunday by supporters of the military takeover.

“I got ready to take just a piece of luggage and leave everything else behind me,” she said.

France’s foreign ministry said that most of the 262 people on the plane were French. A second plane was also scheduled to depart on Tuesday, and Italy has said that it, too, would set up a flight.

Tensions rose after the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, vowed on Sunday vowed to take “all measures necessary,” including possible military action, to force the reinstatement of Niger’s president.

Mali and Burkina Faso, themselves ruled by military governments that took power in coups, responded on Monday, saying that they would consider any move against Niger to be a “declaration of war” against their own countries.

Many analysts said in interviews that an imminent military confrontation was unlikely. But the statement further raised the stakes in a spiraling crisis that has exposed deep regional fissures and set off international alarm over the direction of a region where a succession of governments have fallen to military takeovers in the past four years.

It also raised the prospect that the crisis in Niger, where about 2,600 American and French troops are stationed, could spread into a wider regional conflict.

A French military official said in a briefing on Tuesday that military cooperation with Niger has been suspended, but that French troops were not leaving the country. The Pentagon also said that it had suspended military cooperation with Niger for the time being.

Uncertainty persists over who is truly in charge in Niger, an impoverished nation of 25 million people that is twice the land mass of France.

Mr. Bazoum, 63, who was detained by his own presidential guards on Wednesday, is being held in his private residence near the presidential palace in Niamey. But he can receive visitors — a photo posted to social media on Sunday showed a smiling Mr. Bazoum sitting with the visiting president of Chad, Mahamat Déby, a mediator in the crisis — and he takes phone calls from world leaders and his own officials.

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, has claimed to be in charge of the military council running the country. General Tchiani, 59, has received military training in France and in the United States, at the College of International Security Affairs Fort McNair, in Washington D.C. But he fell into disfavor with Mr. Bazoum and has criticized Mr. Bazoum’s approach to fighting insurgents in the country, which relied heavily on French and American support.

Niger’s ambassador to Britain and France, Aïchatou Boulama Kané, told the BBC on Tuesday that she had spoken to Mr. Bazoum and that he was doing well. “His morale is high,” she said. The ambassador said that she was speaking on behalf of the deposed president and not for Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the junta leader who now claims to be running the country.

The crisis is a stiff test for ECOWAS and its head, the recently elected president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu. The group had already suspended Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea over military coups in those countries since 2020. The tough statement on Sunday signaled that the bloc was ready to move militarily if necessary, despite a checkered record of interventions in regional conflicts.

ECOWAS set a deadline of next Sunday for Mr. Bazoum’s reinstatement. For now, though, it hopes to combat the coup through an economic blockade of landlocked Niger, which depends heavily on its neighbors for trade and financial stability. The measures announced on Sunday included a slate of punishing sanctions against the coup leaders, as well as the suspension of all trade and financial transfers between its member states and Niger. The bloc has also frozen Niger’s assets in regional banks.

Guinea, which has been ruled by a military junta since 2021, said it would not join in sanctions against Niger, though it made no mention of taking military action.

But Niger’s junta leaders have found powerful support in their fellow military leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, who have developed ties of varying degrees to Russia as they have distanced themselves from France.

France’s evacuation from Niger, is the latest in a succession of blows to French power and prestige in western and central Africa, a region it dominated for decades after the end of colonialism in the 1960s.

The junta in Mali expelled 5,000 French troops last year and brought in 1,500 mercenaries with Wagner, the Kremlin-backed private military company, which has since been accused of leading massacres in which hundreds of civilians were killed.

In Burkina Faso, France withdrew its troops this year at the request of the country’s military government. Burkina Faso’s leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, lavished abundant praise on Russia during a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg last week.

Military clashes in Niger could divert soldiers from domestic fights against Islamist insurgents, analysts said.

“Regional partners need Niger and its structured military to stabilize the region,” said Fahiraman Koné, a Mali-based researcher with the Institute of Security Studies.

Even in countries without an insurgency, like Senegal, demonstrators have targeted symbols of French economic might, like French-owned gas stations and supermarkets.

In Niger on Sunday, hundreds of protesters flung stones and Molotov cocktails over the French embassy’s wall.

Niger has one of the world’s biggest reserves of uranium and is an important part of Europe’s energy system.

The biggest mines in a remote desert area in the nation’s northwest are operated by companies from France. Canadian, Chinese and South Korean companies, among others, also have mining stakes there now.

Interest in Niger’s uranium intensified last year as European nations looked to wean themselves from dependency on energy supplies from Russia. Niger was the second-biggest supplier of uranium to the European Union in 2022, according to Euratom, the continent’s nuclear agency, but an E.U. official said on Tuesday that there is no risk of short-term shortages.

The French energy company Orano, which has operations in Niger, said in a statement posted on its website that it had “stepped up its vigilance” to protect the safety of its employees and sites in the country.

Reporting was contributed by Omar Hama Saley from Niamey, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, and Helene Cooper from Washington.



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