Niger junta names leader after coup

A junta that seized power in a coup in the West African nation of Niger named a squadron chief as its leader Friday, hours after soldiers announced on state TV that their group was in charge of the uranium-rich country.
Col. Goukoye Abdul Karimou reads a statement signed by junta leader Salou Djibo in Niamey in this video image dated Thursday, after President Mamadou Tandja was ousted in a military coup. ((Reuters TV))

A junta that seized power in a coup in the West African nation of Niger named a squadron chief as its leader Friday, hours after soldiers announced on state TV that their group was in charge of the uranium-rich country.

In a statement, the junta calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy said it was being led by Salou Djibo.

Armed soldiers stormed the presidential palace with a hail of gunfire Thursday, kidnapping the country's strongman president. The whereabouts of President Mamadou Tandja remained unknown Friday.

The whereabouts of President Mamadou Tandja, seen here in 2009, were unknown after gunmen seized him from the presidential palace in Niamey. ((Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press))

The junta said it wanted to turn Niger into "an example of democracy and of good governance." A diplomat in the region described the coup's leaders as being part of an army faction that is deeply disillusioned with Tandja for violating his constitutionally mandated term limit. Tandja dissolved parliament over his plans to hold the referendum to extend his term.

Since then, the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states has suspended Niger from its ranks, and the U.S. government has cut off non-humanitarian aid and imposed travel restrictions on some government officials.

However, there are also fears that the military group could attempt to cling to power in Niger.

U.S. reaction

The African Union's top executive, Jean Ping, condemned the coup in Niger and said Friday that the AU "demands a quick return to constitutional order."

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tandja may have invited his own fate by "trying to extend his mandate in office."

Both the United States and [the Economic Community of West African States] have expressed our concerns about that, and obviously that may well have been an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today," Crowley said Thursday, while adding that the U.S. does not defend the violent takeover.

ECOWAS is the regional bloc of 15 West African countries.

In their broadcast on state TV, the soldiers said the country was under a curfew and that all its borders have been sealed.

Even the private plane of the Senegalese foreign minister was prevented from landing in Niger by the army, said Senegalese government spokesman Bamba Ndiaye. The minister had been dispatched by Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, whom ECOWAS named as mediator for Niger's political crisis just days before.

It was unclear where Niger's septuagenarian president was on Friday. Radio France Internationale reported that the soldiers had politely escorted Tandja outside to a waiting car, which drove him toward a military camp on the outskirts of the capital.