The U.S. ordered the departure of non-emergency government personnel and their eligible family members from Niger on Wednesday, a week after the military seized power from Niger’s democratically elected president.
“The U.S. Embassy in Niamey has temporarily reduced its personnel, suspended routine services, and is only able to provide emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Niger,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
In a post on Twitter, Secretary Anthony Blinken wrote, “The U.S. is committed to our relationship with the people of Niger. The embassy remains open, and our leaders are diplomatically engaged at the highest levels.”
Earlier Niger’s new military ruler lashed out at neighboring countries and the international community in a nationally televised speech and he called on the population to be ready to defend the nation.
Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani warned against foreign meddling and military intervention against the coup.
“We therefore call on the people of Niger as a whole and their unity to defeat all those who want to inflict unspeakable suffering on our hard-working populations and destabilize our country,” Tchiani said.
Tchiani, who commands Niger’s presidential guard, also promised to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to elections following his ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum.
His speech comes amid rising regional tensions as the West African regional bloc ECOWAS threatens to use military force if Bazoum isn’t released from house arrest and reinstated by Aug. 6. The bloc has imposed severe travel and economic sanctions.
The coup has been strongly condemned by Western countries, many of which saw Niger as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region. Russia and Western countries have been vying for influence in the fight against extremism.
France has 1,500 soldiers in Niger who conduct joint operations with its military, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
Tchiani said that Niger is facing difficult times ahead and that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value. He called the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented.
The fierce rhetoric came as a fourth French military evacuation flight left Niger, after France, Italy and Spain announced evacuations of their citizens and other Europeans in Niamey amid concerns they could become trapped.
Nearly 1,000 people had left on four flights, and a fifth evacuation was underway, France’s ministry of foreign affairs said. An Italian military aircraft landed in Rome on Wednesday with 99 passengers, including 21 Americans and civilians from other countries, the Italian defense ministry said. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the flights took place with the permission of Niger’s new government.
A two-day meeting of defense chiefs of the ECOWAS bloc opened Wednesday in Nigeria’s capital to confer on next steps. Abdel-Fatau Musah, the bloc’s commissioner for political affairs, peace and stability, said the meeting in Abuja would deal with how to “negotiate with the officers in the hostage situation that we find ourselves in the Republic of Niger.”
The sanctions announced by ECOWAS on Sunday included halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90% of its power from neighboring Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
On Tuesday, power transmission from Nigeria to Niger was cut off, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the issue. The official did not clarify how much of Niger’s power the cut represented, but any reduction would further squeeze citizens in the impoverished country of more than 25 million people. U.S. officials have stayed engaged in trying to roll back the armed takeover, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling Niger’s president late Tuesday to express “continued unwavering support.”
A U.S. pullout from Niger would risk Washington’s longstanding counter-terror investments in the West African country, including a major air base in Agadez that is key to efforts against armed extremists across the Sahara and Sahel. The United States has roughly 1,000 military personnel in Niger and helps train some Nigerien forces.
Leaving Niger would also risk yielding the country to the influence of Russia and its Wagner mercenary group, which already has a significant presence in Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan.