France began airlifting civilians, mostly French, from Niger on Tuesday evening following last week’s putsch, its first mass evacuation in the Sahel where coups have multiplied since 2020.
A first plane took off from Niamey in the evening and landed shortly after 11:30 p.m. GMT at Paris-Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport. “There are 262 people on board the plane, which is an Airbus A330, including a dozen babies,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told AFP in the evening, explaining that “almost all passengers are compatriots”.
In addition to a large majority of French people, Nigeriens, Portuguese, Belgians, Ethiopians and Lebanese also landed, the Quai d’Orsay told the press present in Roissy.
The evacuation was “well organized, it was quite fast, for me everything went very well”, testified Bernard, who has been working for two months in Niger for the European Union. “In Niamey, there are no particular tensions in the city, no particular stress, the population goes about its business,” described this man, who left with the bare minimum.
“It feels good,” said relieved Raïssa Kelembho, who returned from Niger with her two boys. “At one point, there was a feeling of insecurity, we knew that everything could change,” explained the mother, whose husband remained in Niger for work.
A second flight was to land overnight, with French, Nigerians, Germans, Belgians, Canadians, Americans, Austrians and Indians on board, according to the French Foreign Ministry.
Of the approximately 1,200 French people registered on the consular lists in Niger, according to Paris, 600 nationals would like to return to France. The authorities’ wish is to close the operation by midday on Wednesday. Four repatriation planes have so far been planned. The evacuation of the French soldiers stationed in Niger is on the other hand “not on the agenda”, had previously indicated to the press the general staff of the French armies.
The German Foreign Ministry recommended during the day “to all its nationals in Niamey”, to accept France’s offer, when Italy announced that it was ready to evacuate its nationals from Niamey. The United States has not made any evacuation decisions at this time, the White House said Tuesday.
‘No need for them’
Paris justifies the evacuation by the “violence that took place” against its embassy on Sunday during a demonstration hostile to France, and by “the closure of airspace which leaves our compatriots without the possibility of leaving the country by their own resources”.
Niamey, through the voice of a putschist, however announced on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday the reopening of Niger’s “land and air borders” with five neighboring countries (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Chad).
In the Nigerien capital, after heavy rains on Tuesday morning, activities resumed and few security force vehicles were visible, AFP journalists noted. “We have no problems with the French”, nor with “European nationals, we have problems with European governments”, assures Hamidou Ali, a 58-year-old Nigerian. A student, Mahamadou Issoufou Idi, judges him that “the French have only to leave”.
France, a former colonial power in the region and unfailing support of President Bazoum, detained since July 26 in his presidential residence, appears to be the privileged target of the soldiers who overthrew him, led by General Abdourahamane Tiani.
The M62 movement, at the initiative of a pro-coup demonstration, denounced on Tuesday the evacuation organized by France, wishing the suspension of some of its media and calling for a “peaceful rally every day” near the airport , “until the final departure of the foreign forces” present in the country.
“Declaration of war”
The junta accused France on Monday of wanting to “intervene militarily”, which Paris firmly denied. On Monday evening, Burkina Faso and Mali, neighbors of Niger and also governed by the military, showed their solidarity with the putschists by saying that any military intervention to restore Mohamed Bazoum would be considered “a declaration of war” on their two countries. and would lead to their withdrawal from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). They added that they refused to apply the “illegal, illegitimate and inhuman sanctions against the people and the authorities of Niger” decided on Sunday by ECOWAS in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.
West African leaders, backed by their Western partners, including France, have given the military junta in Niger a one-week ultimatum for a “full return to constitutional order”, saying they do not rule out a “recourse to strength” if this was not the case.
In this context, ECOWAS announced Tuesday evening that the chiefs of staff of the countries that compose it would meet from Wednesday to Friday in Abuja, about the putsch in Niger. In addition, an ECOWAS delegation, led by the Nigerian Abdulsalami Abubakar, is due to travel to Niger on Wednesday, a senior official of the West African organization and a military official from Niger said on condition of anonymity.
ECOWAS had also decided to “suspend all commercial and financial transactions” between its member states and Niger, and to freeze the assets of military officials involved in the coup.
This article is originally published on letemps.ch