NIAMEY, Niger – Thousands of protesters supporting a coup in Niger took to the streets Sunday and attacked the French embassy as West African governments warned of possible military action to restore democratic rule.
Protesters in the capital Niamey, many waving Russian flags, smashed windows at the French embassy and set fire to a perimeter door, but never breached the embassy walls.
Protesters filled the Boulevard de la Republique and several other main thoroughfares in the capital, some running, others riding motorcycles, and many packed into vehicles. They blocked cars at roundabouts and backed up traffic on side streets. Some shouted and waved flags, mostly from Niger.
Over the course of several minutes, hundreds of protesters passed us as we watched from a vehicle before deciding to turn around rather than try to navigate through the sea of people. The morning also brought another new presence to the streets of Niamey – dozens of police checkpoints.
Most protesters appeared to support the coup leaders, and for the most part those who gathered did not seem angry. In fact, many were smiling and seemed happy.
As the demonstrations unfolded in Niger, West African nations held an emergency summit in Nigeria and announced sweeping sanctions against Niger unless President Mohammed Bazoum was released from detention and returned to power.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) gave the coup leaders a week to reverse their seizure of power or face possible military intervention.
“In the event that the demands of the authorities are not met within one week (ECOWAS will) take all necessary measures to restore constitutional order in the Republic Niger. Such measures may include the use of force,” ECOWAS said in a statement.
ECOWAS said it was suspending all financial transactions with Niger, freezing Niger’s assets in central and commercial banks and imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on military officers involved in the coup.
The army officers leading the coup in Niger earlier said the ECOWAS bloc was on the verge of orchestrating a military intervention in the country.
Niger has been the anchor of the Western fight against terrorism in the turbulent Sahel region, where about 1,100 US troops operate drones and train local forces to fight Islamist extremists.
For decades, France ruled Niger as a colonial power until it gained independence in 1960. Paris has maintained an influential role since then and currently has around 1,500 troops conducting joint operations with local forces against Islamist extremists. A French state-owned company also operates a uranium mine in the north of the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that attacks on France and its interests would not be tolerated.
“France calls for an end to the unacceptable violence observed today,” the French foreign ministry said, adding that it had tightened security at the country’s embassy in Niamey.
France also said it supported the statement by the West African leaders of ECOWAS condemning the coup.
US officials have condemned the military officers’ takeover, but have so far avoided using the word “coup”. Under US law, such a declaration would require the suspension of all US aid to the country and the end of all security cooperation with Niger.
US officials told NBC News that the situation remained fluid and it was unclear whether the coup would last. But they acknowledged that the strong statement from the ECOWAS summit may have heightened tensions in Niger
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken warned Saturday that economic and security ties between the United States and Niger will depend on the release of President Bazoum from house arrest and the restoration of “democratic order in Niger.”
Although U.S. officials say there is no evidence Russia was behind the coup, former diplomats and regional experts say Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group has for months spewed anti-Western, anti-French propaganda that sought to portray President Bazoum government as puppets from Paris.
Wagner’s paramilitaries have ties to military juntas in Mali and other countries in the region. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, which led a short-lived mutiny in Russia last month, praised the coup in Niger on Thursday, calling it a fight against “colonizers”.
By late Sunday night, the streets of Niamey were quiet, with most people obeying a nationwide curfew in effect for a fifth night. With President Bazoum still imprisoned in his presidential residence, there appeared to be no clear path to resolving Niger’s crisis.