By Daphne Psaledakis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department is in touch with hundreds of Americans in Niger, a senior State Department official said on Thursday, amid growing fears of conflict after military officers seized power last week.
The United States ordered the evacuation of some staff and families from its embassy in Niger on Wednesday, but said the mission will remain open and senior leadership will continue working from there.
So far, the situation in Niger remains calm, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Last Wednesday a junta led by the former head of elected President Mohamed Bazoum’s presidential guard, General Abdourahmane Tiani, shut Bazoum in his residence and declared a military coup. Tiani later declared himself head of state.
The focus of the United States is on getting children and spouses out, but political and economic officers and others needed to run the embassy will remain, a second senior State Department official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“We would like to make sure that people don’t have a picture that the U.S. is leaving Niger in any way, we’re actually there to stay. But this is a prudent measure that we need to take out of the abundance of caution,” the official told reporters.
“People are a little worried about demonstrations and/or if ECOWAS really can follow through on its threats, and if that were the case, it wouldn’t be a good thing to have a lot of non-essential people at our mission.”
West Africa’s regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), on Sunday gave Niger coup leaders one week to reinstate ousted Bazoum or face sanctions and the possible use of force.
A charter plane is set to take off on Friday afternoon, the first official said, adding that there may be some seats available for private U.S. citizens who wish to depart the country.
Some Americans have already left on flights arranged by the French or other Europeans, the second official said.
Niger is a key Western ally in a fight against Islamist insurgents. The U.S. has condemned the junta’s overthrow of Bazoum – the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa – which has raised fears for the security of the surrounding Sahel region.
The military and the foreign ministry are Washington’s main points of contact following the takeover, the second official said. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also spoken to Bazoum several times, and the official said that the elected president has assured Washington he is safe.
Washington has also been in touch with former President Mahamadou Issoufou, who appointed Tiani as head of the presidential guard when he was in power. The State Department has not spoken to the coup leader, Tiani, but has been in touch with the people around him.
The official on Thursday said that the sanctions already imposed by ECOWAS are biting hard, adding that it takes time for the bloc to assemble a military force and is not expecting it to develop by Sunday.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Don Durfee and Matthew Lewis)