Niger coup leaders refuse to let senior US diplomat meet with nation’s president

Supporters of Niger's ruling junta hold a Russian flag on Sunday in Niamey, Niger. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

NIAMEY, Niger — A senior U.S. diplomat said coup leaders in Niger refused to allow her to meet Monday with the West African country’s democratically elected president, whom she described as under “virtual house arrest.”

Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland also described the mutinous officers as unreceptive to U.S. pressure to return the country to civilian rule.


“They were quite firm about how they want to proceed, and it is not in support of the constitution of Niger,” Nuland told reporters. She characterized the conversations as “extremely frank and at times quite difficult.”

She spoke after a two-hour meeting in Niger’s capital, Niamey, with some leaders of the military takeover of a country that has been a vital counterterrorism partner of the United States.

In speaking to junta leaders, Nuland said, she made “absolutely clear the kinds of support that we will legally have to cut off if democracy is not restored.”

If the U.S. determines that a democratically elected government has been toppled by unconstitutional means, federal law requires a cutoff of most American assistance, particularly military aid.

She said she also stressed U.S. concern for the welfare of President Mohamed Bazoum, who she said was being detained with his wife and son.

The meeting was with Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, a U.S.-trained officer, and three of the colonels involved in the takeover. The coup’s top leader, former presidential guard head Abdourahamane Tchiani, did not meet with the Americans.

In other developments Monday, leaders of West Africa’s regional bloc said they would meet later this week to discuss next steps after the junta defied a deadline to reinstate the president. The meeting was scheduled for Thursday in Abuja, the capital of neighboring Nigeria, according to a spokesman for the ECOWAS bloc.

Meanwhile, the junta’s mutinous soldiers closed the country’s airspace and accused foreign powers of preparing an attack.

State television reported the junta’s latest actions Sunday night, hours before the deadline set by ECOWAS, which has warned of using military force if Bazoum is not returned to power.

A spokesman for the coup leaders, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, noted “the threat of intervention being prepared in a neighboring country,” and said Niger’s airspace will be closed until further notice. Any attempt to fly over the country will be met with “an energetic and immediate response.”

The junta also claimed that two central African countries were preparing for an invasion. It called on Niger’s population to defend the nation.

The coup toppled Bazoum, whose ascendency was Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France in 1960. The coup also raised questions about the future of the fight against extremism in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence.

Niger had been seen by the United States and others as the last major counterterrorism partner in the Sahel, south of the Sahara Desert, where groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are expanding their influence.

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