The military junta in Niger awaits a response from the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, after coup leaders ignored a deadline to reinstate the ousted president a move the bloc warned could lead to military intervention.
ECOWAS has said it will issue a statement on its next steps, responding to the junta’s refusal to stand down by Sunday, as foreign powers said they hoped for a peaceful resolution.
The bloc has taken a hard stance on the July 26 power grab, the region’s seventh coup in three years.
Given its uranium and oil riches and its pivotal role in a war with Islamist militants, Niger holds economic and strategic importance for the United States, Europe, China and Russia.
On Aug. 6, as the deadline expired, the junta closed its airspace until further notice and said there had been a pre-deployment of forces in preparation for intervention.
“Niger’s armed forces and all our defence and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” said a junta representative in a statement on national television.
An escalation in the standoff with ECOWAS would further destabilise one of the world’s poorest regions, which is in the grip of a hunger crisis and battling an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and forced millions to flee.
ECOWAS defence chiefs agreed on a possible military action plan if the detained president, Mohamed Bazoum, is not released and reinstated, although they said the operational decisions of when and where to strike would be decided by heads of state.
Regional unity is compromised by a promise from the ruling juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso to come to Niger’s defence if needed.
Both countries were sending delegations to Niamey to show solidarity, the Malian army said on social media on Monday.
African and Western allies have imposed sanctions and cut aid to Niger in attempts to pressure the junta to step down.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in an interview published on Monday that ECOWAS should extend its deadline for the reinstatement of Bazoum.
“The only way is the diplomatic one. I hope that the ultimatum of ECOWAS, which expired last night at midnight, will be extended today,” Tajani told La Stampa newspaper.
“It is right that he (Bazoum) should be freed, but we cannot do it. The United States are very cautious about this, it is unthinkable that they would start a military intervention in Niger,’’ Tajani added.
Italy said on Sunday that it had reduced its troop numbers in Niger to make room in its military base for Italian civilians who may need protection if security deteriorates.
Bazoum said in an opinion piece published last week that he was a hostage and called on the United States and the international community to restore constitutional order.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday called for “the immediate restoration of Niger’s democratically elected government”, and said the U.S. would pause certain foreign assistance programmes that benefit the government of Niger.
“There is a rather extraordinary alignment of the West, and of Africa to condemn what is happening,” French European Affairs Minister Laurence Boone said on Monday.
“I hope that we will be able to restore democracy and the constitution without blood and in peace,” she said on the French television channel LCI.