Friday, February 19, 2010

Military Coup in Niger

NIAMEY, Feb 18: Soldiers in Niger seized President Mamadou Tandja in a coup bid on Thursday amid gunbattles that killed at least three troops in the uranium-rich nation, two ministers also being held captive said.

Gunfire and loud explosions reverberated across the capital Niamey as soldiers assaulted the presidential palace where Mr Tandja, the country’s strongman for the past decade, presided over a cabinet meeting.

A French diplomat said Mr Tandja’s own guard took part in the coup.

“We want to know what has happened. It is our country and no one wants to set it ablaze,” said one of Mr Tandja’s ministers, contacted by mobile telephone from Niamey and speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We cannot move freely, we cannot go out. They have taken away Mamadou Tandja,” he added.

The other minister said: “We do not know what is happening, we are not free to move about, but we have our mobile telephones with us and we are where the cabinet meeting was to take place.”

An African diplomat based in Niger confirmed the capture, saying several senior government figures had been arrested.

“Tandja is among them. The rebels have taken the upper hand,” he said.

Another official said that Mr Tandja was believed to be held in a military barrack on the outskirts of the capital.

“President Tandja and his aide-de-camp may be held at a garrison in Tondibia,” about 20km west of Niamey, the official said.

State radio suspended its programmes and played martial music as Niger’s long-simmering political tensions erupted. Previous coups in the state have seen the network playing military tunes.

Mr Tandja, 71, extended his term through a controversial referendum last August after dissolving parliament and the constitutional court, leading to the West African nation’s isolation in the international stage.

Witnesses said they saw the bodies of three soldiers being lifted out of a badly damaged armoured vehicle which pulled up outside the morgue of the main hospital.—AFP

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