Niamey (Niger), Aug 7 (AP) West Africa's regional bloc says heads of state will meet Thursday to discuss their next steps after Niger's military junta defied the bloc's deadline to reinstate the country's ousted president while its mutinous soldiers closed the country's airspace and accused foreign powers of preparing an attack.
State television reported the junta's latest actions Sunday night, hours before the deadline set by regional bloc ECOWAS, which has warned of using military force if the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum isn't returned to power.
A spokesman for the coup leaders, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, noted “the threat of intervention being prepared in a neighbouring country,” and said Niger's airspace will be closed until further notice. Any attempt to fly over the country will be met with “an energetic and immediate response.”
The junta also claimed that two central African countries were preparing for an invasion, but did not name them, and called on Niger's population to defend the nation.
International airlines have begun to divert flights around Niger's airspace, which the United States and others had seen as the last major counterterrorism partner in the vast Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert, where groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are expanding their influence.
Also Monday, Mali said it and Burkina Faso, both neighbours of Niger run by military juntas, were sending a delegation of officials to Niger to show support. Both countries have said they would consider any intervention in Niger as a “declaration of war” against them. The Associated Press saw several security officers from Burkina Faso at a hotel in Niger's capital.
Regional tensions have mounted since Niger's coup nearly two weeks ago, with the mutinous soldiers detaining Bazoum and installing Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, former head of the presidential guard, as head of state.
Analysts say the coup is believed to have been triggered by a power struggle between Tchiani and the president, who was about to fire him.
It was not immediately clear what ECOWAS leaders will do now. The region is divided on a course of action. There was no sign of military forces gathering at Niger's border with Nigeria, the likely entry point by land.
Nigeria's Senate has pushed back on the plan to invade, urging Nigeria's president, the bloc's current chair, to explore options other than the use of force. ECOWAS can still move ahead, as final decisions are made by consensus by member states.
Guinea and neighbouring Algeria, which is not an ECOWAS member, have come out against the use of force. Senegal's government has said it would participate in a military operation if it went ahead, and Ivory Coast has expressed support for the bloc's efforts to restore constitutional order.
The junta does not appear interested in negotiation. An ECOWAS delegation sent to Niger last week for hours of talks was not allowed to leave the airport and met only with Tchiani's representatives.
The junta has also asked for help from the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which operates in a handful of African countries including Mali, according to according to Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Centre.
Since the coup, extremists have been ecstatic as they're able to move around more freely without fear of attack, Boubacar Moussa, a former jihadi fighter, told the AP. He had joined a nationwide programme that encourages fighters to defect and reintegrate into society. The programme's fate is unclear.
Moussa said he's received at least 10 phone calls from active jihadis in the Tillaberi region near the Mali border who said there's been no concern about airstrikes. If there's a military intervention by ECOWAS, they likely will attack Niamey, he said.
At a rally on Sunday, thousands cheered junta leaders who said their loyalty would be repaid.
“We are with you against them. We will give you the Niger that you are owed,” Brig. Gen. Mohamed Toumba said. After his speech, rallygoers beheaded a chicken decorated in the colours of former coloniser France.
The junta is exploiting anti-French sentiments to shore up its support base and has severed security ties with France, which still has 1,500 military personnel in Niger for counterterrorism efforts.
On Monday, France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally discouraged any travel to Niger, Burkina Faso or Mali, and called on French nationals to be extremely vigilant. France has suspended development aid to Burkina Faso.
It's not clear what will happen to the French military presence, or to the 1,100 US military personnel also in Niger.
Many people, largely youth, have rallied around the junta, taking to the streets at night to patrol after being urged to guard against foreign intervention.
“While they (jihadists) kill our brothers and sisters ... ECOWAS didn't intervene. Is it now that they will intervene?” said Amadou Boukari, a coup supporter at Sunday's rally. “Shame on ECOWAS.”
But others have expressed concerns about the junta's tightening grip.
One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to comment, said the junta is scaring people into joining it. (AP)