First evacuation flight from coup-hit Niger lands in France
This handout picture taken and released on August 1, 2023 by the Etat Major des Armees (French Defense Staff) shows French, and other European citizens getting registered as they wait outside the departures terminal of Niamey's Diori-Hamani international airport. French and European citizens were to be evacuated on August 1, 2023 from Niger, six days after a coup toppled one of the last pro-Western leaders in the jihadist-plagued Sahel and stoked anti-French demonstrations. (Photo by Handout / Etat Major des Armées / AFP)
(AFP) - The first plane carrying mostly French and European people evacuated from Niger landed in Paris early Wednesday, a week after a coup toppled one of the last pro-Western leaders in the jihadist-plagued Sahel.
President Mohamed Bazoum was detained by his own presidential guard in a third coup in as many years in the Sahel, following putsches in neighbouring fellow former French colonies Mali and Burkina Faso.
West African leaders, supported by their Western partners, have threatened to use force to reinstate the democratically elected Bazoum and slapped financial sanctions on the junta.
After anti-French protests unleashed by the coup, Paris on Tuesday said it was moving to withdraw its nationals from the capital Niamey.
"There are 262 people on board the plane, an Airbus A330, including a dozen babies," French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told AFP before the first evacuation flight landed at Paris Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport shortly after 1:30 am Wednesday (2330 GMT Tuesday).
"Nearly all the passengers are compatriots" along with "some European nationals".
There were also Nigeriens, Portuguese, Belgians, Ethiopians and Lebanese on board, the foreign ministry told reporters at the airport.
The evacuation was "well organised, it was fairly quick, for me everything went well", said Bernard, who had been working in Niger for the European Union for two months.
"In Niamey, there are no particular tensions in the city, no particular stress, people go about their business," he said.
"It feels good," said a relieved Raissa Kelembho, who returned from Niger with her two boys. "At one point, there was a feeling of insecurity, we knew that everything could change," said Kelembho, whose husband remained in Niger for work.
A second plane carrying French, Nigerien, German, Belgian, Canadian, American, Austrian and Indian nationals was due to land, with a total of four flights planned so far in an operation expected to end by midday Wednesday.
- 'No military pullout' -
The coup has sounded alarm bells in France, Niger's former colonial master and traditional ally.
Paris blamed the evacuation on the "violence that took place against our embassy" and the risk of "closure of the airspace that would leave our compatriots without the possibility to leave".
The Niger junta, however, announced late Tuesday that it had reopened the country's land and air borders with five neighbouring countries.
It is the first time that France has staged a large-scale evacuation in its former colonies in the Sahel.
However, the army chief of staff announced that a military pullout of France's 1,500 troops from Niger was "not on the agenda".
In Berlin, the foreign ministry urged "all German nationals" to take up the French evacuation offer. It said that fewer than 100 German civilians were believed to be in Niger.
In Washington, the White House said the United States was not joining European allies in evacuating citizens for now, citing a lack of immediate danger.
About 1,100 US troops are in Niger.
- 'Declaration of war' -
On Sunday the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) slapped sanctions on Niger and warned it may use force as it gave the coup leaders a week to reinstate Bazoum.
The following day, the junta accused France of seeking to "intervene militarily", a charge which drew a French denial, while junta-ruled Mali and Burkina Faso warned any military intervention in Niger would be a "declaration of war" against them.
The military chiefs of ECOWAS members will meet in the Nigerian capital Abuja from Wednesday to Friday to discuss the coup.
A delegation from the West African bloc led by former Nigerian president Abdulsalami Abubakar is also due to visit Niger on Wednesday.
The dramatic events are unfolding in one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries -- a vast semi-desert nation that had already experienced four coups since independence in 1960.
Bazoum was feted in 2021 after winning elections that ushered in Niger's first-ever peaceful transition of power.
But his tenure was already marked by two attempted coups before last week's dramatic events, in which he was detained by members of the elite Presidential Guard.
Guards chief General Abdourahamane Tiani has declared himself leader -- but his claim has been rejected internationally.
- Jihadist insurgency -
The coup has worried Western countries against a backdrop of a jihadist insurgency that flared in northern Mali in 2012, advanced into Niger and Burkina Faso three years later and now overshadows fragile states on the Gulf of Guinea.
Countless numbers of civilians, troops and police have been killed across the region, many in ruthless massacres, while around 2.2 million people in Burkina Faso alone have fled their homes. The economic damage has been devastating.
France at one point had point 5,400 troops in its anti-jihadist Barkhane mission across the Sahel, supported by fighter jets, helicopters and drones.
In all three Sahel countries, the disgruntled military intervened against elected presidents as the toll mounted from jihadist attacks.
© Agence France-Presse