US expresses 'growing concern' for safety of Niger's president amid apparent coup

Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum at the Elysee Palace on Feb. 16, 2023 in Paris. -- Chesnot/Getty Images, FILE

(WASHINGTON) -- There is "growing concern" for the safety of Niger's democratically elected president who remains under house arrest amid an apparent coup there, according to the U.S. Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller.

"We are greatly worried about his health and his personal safety and the personal safety of his family," Miller said during a press briefing on Wednesday. "As the time goes on, as he's held in isolation, it's a situation that's of growing concern to us."

Miller did not speak to the specific conditions of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum's confinement but said he had "no reason to dispute" reports that the politician is being denied access to running water, electricity and other supplies.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called for Bazoum's immediate release, warning in a statement last week that the West African nation is "facing a grave challenge to its democracy."

On July 26, a group of mutinous soldiers led by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the commander of Niger's presidential guard, placed Bazoum and his family under house arrest in the Nigerien capital of Niamey. They then announced on Nigerien state television that they have "put an end to the regime" of Bazoum due to "the continuing degradation of the security situation, the bad economic and social governance."

The group, which calls itself the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, said "all institutions" have been suspended, aerial and land borders have been closed and a curfew has been imposed until the situation is stabilized. They declared Tchiani the new head of state and warned foreign governments "not to interfere."

Bazoum's apparent ousting marks the seventh attempted coup in West and Central Africa since 2020 and throws into question the future of Niger, a landlocked country that has had four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. Bazoum was elected to office in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power.

As military leaders seized control last month, the streets of Niger's capital erupted in chaos as hundreds of people marched in support of the president while chanting "No coup d'etat." Thousands of others came out in support of the junta, waving Russian flags and holding signs that read "Down with France." Protesters also burned down a door and smashed windows at the French embassy in Niamey before being dispersed by Nigerien soldiers.

France, along with several other countries, has since evacuated its citizens from Niger while the U.S. has evacuated some embassy employees and their families. Although the U.S. embassy in Niamey remains open for limited, emergency services to its citizens there, routine consular services are suspended and Americans are being advised not to travel to Niger, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The ordered temporary departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and eligible family members from the embassy in Niamey has no impact on U.S. forces in Niger, according to U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional body comprised of 15 West African countries, announced sanctions against Niger on July 30 and threatened to use force if the coup leaders didn't reinstate Bazoum within one week. But the Nigerien junta has so far failed to comply and even announced on Wednesday that it has formed a new government.

Guinea, a nearby nation that has been under military rule since 2021, issued a statement on July 30 expressing support for Niger's junta and urging ECOWAS to "come to its senses." On July 31, the military-ruled governments of Burkina Faso and Mali, which share borders with Niger, released a joint statement denouncing the ECOWAS sanctions as "illegal, illegitimate and inhumane," refusing to apply them, and also warned that "any military intervention against Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali."

Meanwhile, Benin, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal -- all ECOWAS member states -- have indicated their willingness to send troops into Niger if the bloc decided to do so.

In a televised statement on Sunday night, hours before the deadline set by ECOWAS, a spokesperson for the Nigerien coup leaders announced that the nation's airspace will be closed until further notice due to “the threat of intervention being prepared in a neighboring country." The spokesperson warned that any airspace violation will be met with "an energetic and immediate response." At least 3,000 Nigerien troops have since been moved from the northern Agadez region to the country's southern border with Nigeria.

ECOWAS leaders met in Nigeria's capital of Abuja on Thursday for a second summit to discuss their options regarding the situation in Niger as the junta remains defiant.

Various sources told ABC News on Monday that an American delegation was also in Abuja to discuss a strategy to avoid neighboring Niger being overtaken by the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, which could destabilize the entire region.

Bazoum's government has been a top ally to both the U.S. and Europe in the fight against violent extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa's Sahel region. The U.S. Department of Defense said it has provided $500 million in military assistance to Niger since 2012, "one of the largest" security assistance and training packages in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. has freezed its funding to Niger amid the apparent coup.

There are currently 1,100 U.S. military personnel in Niger as part of a long-running counterterrorism mission that trains the Nigerien military and runs drone operations from a large base in the northern city of Agadez, located in the Sahara Desert. Those operations have been suspended in the wake of the apparent coup, namely the drone activity since Niger's airspace has been closed below 24,000 feet.

Other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso and Mali, have ousted the French military and instead enlisted the help of Wagner. In a voice message posted July 27 on social media channels linked to Wagner, the group's founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, appeared to endorse the coup in Niger and offer the services of his fighters to the junta.

ABC News' Aicha El Hammar Castano, Luis Martinez, Emma Ogao and Joe Simonetti contributed to this report.

Thursday, August 10, 2023 at 8:57AM by Shannon K. Crawford and Morgan Winsor, ABC News Permalink