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Soldiers seize President Tandja in coup

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2010-02-18

Niger President Mamadou Tandja and his ministers have been seized by soldiers who launched a coup attempt in the uranium-producing west African state, diplomats said Thursday.

Niger troops stormed the presidency complex amid deadly gunbattles in Niamey on Thursday and seized President Mamadou Tandja and his cabinet in a coup d'Etat, diplomats said.
Gunfire and loud explosions reverberated across the city as soldiers assaulted the palace where Tandja, the country's strongman for the past decade, presided over a cabinet meeting.
A French diplomat said Tandja's own presidential guard took part in the coup.
"It happened after a cabinet meeting. It would appear that President Tandja is currently in the hands of the rebels and that the members of the government are themselves held," the diplomat said.
An African diplomat based in the world's third-biggest uranium producer confirmed the capture, saying several senior government figures had been arrested.
"Tandja is among them. The rebels have taken the upper hand," he said.

At least three soldiers were killed, according to witnesses.

A Niamey resident at the palace meeting with a presidential advisor when the violence broke out told Radio France Internationale that smoke could be around the president’s office, “as if the office had been hit”.

France urged its nationals in Niamey to stay indoors following a report from a senior French official -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- that a coup attempt was indeed under way.

One of FRANCE 24’s Observers recounted the atmosphere on the ground around three hours after the first reports of gunfire surfaced: “I just left my office which is located 300 metres from the presidential palace. The army has surrounded the palace and seems to have restored a bit of order. I haven’t heard anymore gunfire for around thirty minutes. Helicopters are flying over the zone. The president and ministers are inside the palace.“

A controversial presidency

Tandja, 71, has spent more than a decade as president of the uranium-rich West African country.

The leader drew criticism and sanctions after dissolving parliament and implementing a constitutional reform in 2009 that gave him additional powers and extended his time in office beyond the second five-year mandate, which expired in December.

A widely criticised constitutional referendum in August eliminated many of the remaining checks on Tandja’s authority, abolished term limits, and gave him three more years in power without an election.

The constitutional court deemed that vote illegal, prompting Tandja to abolish the court and replacing its members with appointees of his choice.

Niger has since been isolated on the international stage. West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS suspended Niger in October, and the US ended trade benefits for the country in December. Meanwhile, the EU delayed aid payments to the country, while former colonial power France was also critical of Tandja following his actions.

Opposition party leaders ‘likely’ behind coup attempt

Negotiations between Niger's government and opposition leaders in order to find an exit to the political standoff were suspended last week, having repeatedly stalled since they began on Dec. 21.

According to Africa specialist Douglas Yates, interviewed by FRANCE 24 as the situation in Niamey unfolded, those behind the coup attempt are indeed likely “leaders of the opposition parties, because those are the ones in a position to take power.”

As Yates explained, Niger’s status as one of the world’s biggest uranium producers is a key factor in the political turmoil that has gripped the country, coming to a head on Thursday. “The real prize here is the big uranium contracts,” Yates noted. “Niger is a uranium-dependent country. Most of its trade with the outside world is selling its uranium..[...]..These kinds of contracts have signature bonuses, they also have terms that are negotiated. So he who controls the presidential palace also controls the uranium revenues.”

Date created : 2010-02-18