Niger junta accuse France of violating airspace as tensions go up another notch

By bne IntelliNews August 11, 2023

Niger's military junta has accused France of violating its airspace, as part of a broader scheme to destabilise the nation, army officer Amadou Abdramane claimed in a video without providing any evidence.

A French military aircraft “deliberately cut off all contact with air traffic control on entering our air space,” from 6:39-11:15 am (0539-1015 GMT) on Wednesday (August 9), the regime said in a statement read on national TV, according to local reports.

Niger’s new military rulers also accused France, the country’s traditional ally, of having “unilaterally freed captured terrorists,” a term used for extremists who have been conducting a bloody eight-year-old insurgency.

The junta claimed that “extremists” planned an attack on “military positions in the tri-border area,” where the frontiers of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge, according to a statement from the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), which seized power on July 26.

France admitted that a French plane had entered the country’s airspace, but a French government source told AFP that the flight in question had been “authorized by and coordinated with” Niger’s armed forces. However, the junta announced two days earlier that Niger’s airspace had been closed to international traffic. The junta claimed France had allowed a military plane to take off on August 9 from neighbouring Chad, which then crossed into Niger, defying a ban imposed on Sunday.

Responding to the claim that France had released extremists in Niger, the French government source told AFP that “no terrorist has been freed by French forces.”

Tensions are running high in the region which threatens to descend into a large military clash between neighbours. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met last week to discuss possibile military intervention but decided earlier this week to refrain from action for the moment.

The previous administration of President Mohamed Bazoum maintained close ties with France, which was a major export destination for the country's commodities and provided peacekeepers to help hold Islamist insurgents at bay that have plagued Niger for years.

French troops are still present in the country, along with US, Italian and Germans personnel, as part of an international peacekeeping mission to provide security against the insurgents that are devastating the whole Sahel region.

However, the new military junta has rejected France and turned to Moscow for support. The junta has already revoked military pacts with France and halted the export of commodities. Western donors have also cut off supplies of humanitarian aid, money, food and medicine.

Nigeria's President and ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu imposed more sanctions on Niger on August 8, aimed at squeezing entities and individuals involved in the takeover, and said all options remained on the table.

The US Acting Deputy of the State Department Victoria Nuland was also in Niger earlier this week to push the junta to hold elections and return the country to constitutional rule but made little progress according to her own assessment of the trip. EU and UN diplomats have also been rebuffed.

Europe is keen to see a resolution to the conflict as Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium, which fuels nuclear power plants that comprise 80% of France’s electricity generation capacity. The West also do not want to see another African country fall under the sway of Russia as part of the wider clash between East and West over the fate of Ukraine.

In the video statement, Abdramane conveyed concerns about France's alleged intentions to undermine the junta's credibility within the population and create an atmosphere of insecurity. The junta has previously made similar accusations against France, a claim consistently denied by Paris.

Despite the unconstitutional change of power, normal Nigeriens are largely supportive of the coup as bna IntelliNews has reported. A recent poll found that 80% of Nigeriens support the coup leaders and 60% see Russia as the country’s preferred ally. In a testimony to the lingering resentment toward France, less than 5% of respondents saw France as an important ally.

The internal politics was made more complicated on August 9 after a former rebel leader, Rhissa Ag Boula, announced the creation of a new Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) aimed at reinstating ousted Bazoum, who has been in detention at his residence since the takeover that will increase tensions inside the country, Reuters reports.

"Niger is the victim of a tragedy orchestrated by people charged with protecting it," Ag Boula's statement said as cited by Reuters, adding that the CRR would use "any means necessary" to stop the military from denying the people of Niger their free choice.

If civil war breaks out then it becomes more likely that the junta will turn to Russia for military help in the form of hiring Russia’s Wagner PMC to provide guns and men, as did Mali in its recent civil strife. The junta has reportedly already had talks with Wagner, which has over 1,000 mercenaries in neighbouring countries.

Ag Boula played a leading role in uprisings by Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group present in Niger's desert north, in the 1990s and 2000s. Like many former rebels, he was integrated into government under Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou.

ECOWAS heads of state met again on August 10 in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss next steps, including the possible use of force to restore constitutional order.

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