(Reuters) – France will evacuate French and European citizens from Niger starting on Tuesday, its foreign ministry said, days after a junta seized power in the west African country.
Italy also said on Tuesday it would offer a special flight to repatriate its nationals from the capital Niamey. Niger’s borders have been closed to commercial flights since military officers ousted President Mohamed Bazoum last Wednesday.
The overthrow of Niger’s democratically elected government – the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa – has sent shockwaves across the region, where Niger’s Western allies fear losing influence to Russia.
Former colonial power France has had troops in the region for a decade helping to fight an Islamist insurgency, but some locals say they want the former colonial ruler to stop intervening in their affairs.
The United States, Germany, and Italy also have troops in Niger on counter-insurgency and training missions. There has been no announcement of troops being evacuated so far.
On Sunday, supporters of the junta burned French flags and attacked the French embassy in Niger’s capital, Niamey, prompting police to fire volleys of tear gas in response.
“Considering the situation in Niamey, the violence against our embassy the day before yesterday and the fact that the air space is shut and our citizens cannot leave by their own means, France is preparing the evacuation of its citizens and (other) European citizens who want to leave the country,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The evacuation will start today,” it said.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told BFM TV late on Monday that the protest in front of the embassy and the ensuing accusations that France shot at the crowd – which it denies – “have all the usual ingredients of destabilisation, the Russian-African way”.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, last week welcomed the coup in Niger, and said his forces were available to restore order.
The Kremlin said that the situation in Niger was “cause for serious concern” and called for a swift return to constitutional order.
According to the French foreign ministry website, there were just under 1,200 French nationals in Niger in 2022.
The coup has raised fears for the security of the Sahel region, where groups linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda have been gaining ground for years.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.
Regional bloc ECOWAS has imposed sanctions, including border closure, a halt in all financial transactions and a national assets freeze, and said it could authorise force to reinstate Bazoum, who is still locked in his palace.
But the juntas of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea all voiced their support for the coup’s leaders on Monday.