U.S. suspends security cooperation with Niger as Europeans evacuate

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The United States has suspended security cooperation with military forces in Niger following an effort to oust the elected president there, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday, a new acknowledgment of the seriousness of conditions on the ground as the Biden administration grapples with how to respond to last week’s apparent coup.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters that partnered activities, including U.S. training of Nigerien soldiers, has been “suspended in light of the situation.” Another defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, said the suspension had begun shortly after President Mohamed Bazoum was detained by his own presidential guard.

The Pentagon’s comments came as French military aircraft began an evacuation of French and other European citizens from the international airport in Niamey, the west African country’s capital, amid rising tensions.

The United States, while urging Americans there to avoid “unnecessary movements” and pay attention to embassy safety alerts, has not participated in the evacuation, White House spokesman John Kirby said earlier in a separate briefing for reporters.

“We don’t have any indications of direct threats to U.S. citizens or to our facilities” and there is “no change to our posture at this time,” Kirby said. “But again, we’re monitoring it literally by the hour,” and if the situation changes “I’m sure we’ll have more to say about that.” He said the administration has urged Nigerien authorities to help facilitate the European evacuation flights.

Military mutiny in Niger comes after string of coups across region

France sent evacuation emails to its citizens after its embassy in Niamey was attacked over the weekend and protesters took to the streets. The French Foreign Ministry, which estimates there are several hundred French citizens in Niger, a former French colony, said it would also help other Europeans leave the country. Germany, Italy and Spain have indicated their nationals should leave.

The first of an expected three French air force evacuation planes took off from Niamey just before 9 p.m. local time with 262 people on board, including a dozen babies, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told Agence France-Presse.

The upheaval began last week when Niger’s presidential guard detained Bazoum and declared guard head Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani the country’s new leader. Since then, the State Department and the Pentagon have made intensive efforts to convince the leaders of Niger’s military and neighboring countries to pressure the self-proclaimed ruling junta to stand down and reinstall Bazoum.

The United States has two military bases inside the country. About 1,000 troops are deployed there for counterterrorism purposes and partnered operations with Niger’s military forces. “There’s no decision to use them in any way to support evacuation efforts by other countries,” Kirby said. “And there have been no decisions made about pre-positioning any additional [U.S.] forces in or nearby Niger for that purpose … If we have to make adjustments, we’ll make adjustments. We’re just not there yet.”

African nations threaten military intervention in Niger after coup

He also declined to speculate over whether a group of West African nations who last weekend threatened to use force in Niger if the civilian government were not restored would do so. “I’ll let them speak to what their plans are.”

“We still believe that there’s a window here for diplomacy and that’s what we’re focused on,” Kirby said.

A number of weekend demonstrators appeared in the streets with Russian flags. But despite reports that Moscow or Russia’s Wagner mercenary group was somehow involved in fomenting the apparent coup attempt, he said, “there’s no indication that Russia was behind this” or was “materially supporting it in any way or responsible for what’s happening.”

Defense Department officials previously had stopped short of saying security cooperation was suspended, while acknowledging more vaguely that the power struggle has altered operations. Asked on Monday evening whether the United States had suspended the training of Nigerien soldiers, another defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, did not offer a direct answer, saying only that U.S. troops “continue daily cooperation to keep the base operations and services functioning.”

Ryder, asked on Tuesday whether the suspension affects long-running regional counterterrorism and surveillance drone flights operating from the U.S. bases in Niger, declined to respond, saying that he “wasn’t going to talk about” intelligence operations.

“Our focus right now is on making sure that our troops continue to stay safe, that we continue to assess the situation,” Ryder said. “The situation does remain fluid. We think it’s just too soon to characterize the nature of ongoing developments.”

“We’re just not going to get into labels” about what is happening in Niger, Ryder said.

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