Page last updated at 19:01 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Niger's coup leaders lift curfew


Col Goukoye Abdul Karimou read a statement signed by Col Salou Djibo

Niger's new military rulers have lifted a curfew and reopened the country's borders, a day after they overthrew the government and detained the president.

Ten people are said to have died when the junta seized power in gun battles - a move which has been widely condemned.

The African Union has suspended Niger from the regional organisation and demanded free elections are held.

A junta spokesman, Col Goukoye Abdul Karimou, earlier told the BBC President Mamadou Tandja was "safe and well".

"We are taking care of him - remember he is one of our elder soldiers," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa.

The colonel said most of the cabinet ministers captured along with the president had been released and had gone home.

The three still being held would be free in a couple of days, he added.

It is believed they are being held at a military barracks in Niamey.

'Under control'

The day after the takeover, people in the capital were going about their business as normal - attending mosques and going shopping.

There was no obvious military presence on the streets, although heavy artillery was deployed around the presidential palace.

Map of Niger
Chronic poverty
Population 14 million, 61% live on less than $1 a day
Resource rich
Huge reserves of uranium, Chinese firms digging for oil
Politically unstable
History of coups, assassinations and on-off rebellion by nomadic Tuareg people in the north

Source: World Bank

Announcing the lifting of a curfew and the reopening of borders on Friday, Col Abdul Karimou told journalists the situation was now "under control".

"There is no single voice of dissension in either Niamey or in other parts of the country," he added.

Troops stormed the presidential palace during a cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon, seizing Mr Tandja and his ministers before announcing that they were suspending the constitution and dissolving all state institutions.

Calling themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), the coup leaders promised to turn Niger into an example of "democracy and good governance" and save its people from "poverty, deception and corruption".

A senior army officer, Col Salou Djibo, was named head of a military government.

The US said it believed the coup had been triggered by Mr Tandja's actions last August, when he held a controversial referendum to abolish limits on presidential terms of office.

Niger is suspended from all activities of the AU. Meanwhile, we will continue with the process of helping them return to constitutional order
Mull Sebujja Katende, African Union Peace and Security Council

The BBC's Idy Baraou in Niamey says thousands of people took to the streets near the parliament building after Friday prayers in support of the coup.

The opposition Co-ordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic (CFDR) - a coalition of political parties, trade unions and human rights groups formed last year to protest against the constitutional changes - also welcomed it.

In a statement, the group condemned "President Tanja's stubbornness in power", and called on the junta to respect its pledge to restore democracy.

Mr Tandja, a 71-year-old former army officer, was first elected in 1999 and was returned to power in an election in 2004. His second term in office expired in December, but was extended to allow him to complete major investment projects.

'Benefit of the doubt'

The international community has been quick to condemn the coup.

The European Union followed former colonial power France in calling for all those involved to "engage immediately in a democratic process allowing for rapid establishment of the constitutional order".

Col Salou Djibo
Col Salou Djibo
Coup leader
Col Djibrilla Hima Hamidou
Involved in 1999 coup
Col Goukoye Abdul Karimou
Junta spokesman
Col Amadou Harouna

The chairman of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, said there should be "zero tolerance" of those taking power by force.

The regional organisation later announced that it had suspended Niger and called for its citizens to be allowed to elect the leader they wanted.

"Niger is suspended from all activities of the AU. Meanwhile, we will continue with the process of helping them return to constitutional order," said Mull Sebujja Katende, who chairs the AU Peace and Security Council.

The West Africa trade bloc, Ecowas, which had been mediating in talks between the government and opposition before the coup, has already been in touch with the junta and has dispatched a team to Niamey for talks.

Ecowas chief Mohammed Ibn Chambas told the BBC the soldiers could be given "the benefit of the doubt" if they moved quickly to restore civilian rule.

"With the events of the last few days, we need to make contact with the authorities to help them return the country quickly to constitutional government," he told Focus on Africa.

International deals

Our correspondent says the junta leader, Col Djibo, has command over about 40% of the uranium-rich country's military arsenal.

President Tandja (file image)
President Tandja's second term in office expired in December

The colonel's family has deep-rooted army connections, he adds.

The 49-year-old received training in Bouake, Ivory Coast, Morocco and China, military sources told the Reuters news agency. He also served with the UN peacekeeping forces in Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another of the plotters, Col Djibrilla Hima Hamidou, was junta spokesman during the last military takeover in 1999.

The then military leader, Col Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, was assassinated during that coup, but civilian rule was restored within a year.

On Friday, the coup leaders issued a communique saying government departments would now be run by senior civil servants.

Niger has experienced long periods of military rule since independence from France in 1960.

It is one of the world's poorest countries, but Mr Tandja's supporters argue that his decade in power has brought a measure of economic stability.

Under his tenure, the French energy firm Areva has begun work on the world's second-biggest uranium mine - ploughing an estimated $1.5bn (£970m) into the project.

China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $5bn deal in 2008 to pump oil within three years.

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