By Boureima Balima and Felix Onuah
NIAMEY (Reuters) -Thousands of people gathered in Niger’s capital on Friday to demonstrate in favour of last month’s coup as regional leaders were considering military intervention to restore civilian rule.
Since the July 26 military ouster of elected President Mohamed Bazoum, many Nigeriens have joined junta-organised rallies to show support for the generals, criticise Western powers and laud Russia, which is vying for influence with the West in the region.
The peaceful crowd on Friday numbered in the thousands, according to a Reuters witness. The rally began at a French military base in the capital Niamey then protesters with signs and flags spread onto surrounding streets.
“Long live Russia,” one protester’s sign read. “Down with France…. Down with ECOWAS,” referring to the Economic Community of West African States. At a summit on Thursday, the body ordered the activation of a standby force that could intervene to reinstate Bazoum.
The military takeover was the seventh coup in West and Central Africa in three years, and demonstrations in Niger have mirrored street scenes in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso after coups between 2020 and 2022.
Popular anger is targeted at former colonial power France, whose forces were kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso after the coups there and whose presence in Niger is under threat. Protesters in Niger attacked the French embassy.
“I am here to request the departure of the French forces,” said protester Salamatou Hima on Friday. “We are free and we have the right to demand what is beneficial for our country.”
The military coup was triggered by internal politics but has repercussions far beyond Niger’s borders, raising the spectre of deepening conflict in a strategically important region. Uranium-rich Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been an ally for the West in the fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel region.
U.S., French, German and Italian troops are stationed in Niger to repel local affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State that have killed thousands and displaced millions across the Sahel.
Regional army chiefs were expected to meet in coming days. It was not yet clear how long the ECOWAS standby force would take to assemble, how big it would be and if it will actually invade. The organisation stressed that all options were on the table and it still hoped for a peaceful resolution.
Security analysts said the force could take weeks to set up, potentially leaving room for negotiations.
Ivory Coast is the only country so far to specify how many troops it would send, promising a battalion of 850 on Thursday.
Benin and Sierra Leone said on Friday they would contribute troops but did not say how many. Senegal said last week it would contribute troops if there were an intervention.
Most other countries in the 15-nation ECOWAS have so far either declined to comment or not yet taken a decision.
At Friday’s rally, protester Ali Hassane vowed to defend his country. If the ECOWAS force invades, “it’s us civilians who are going to fight,” he said.
Russia’s foreign ministry said it supported ECOWAS efforts to mediate but warned against any military intervention in Niger, saying it could destabilise the country and region.
France said it fully backed conclusions of the ECOWAS summit but did not outline any concrete support it would give to a potential intervention.
Niger’s junta has yet to react to the prospect of a forceful intervention by ECOWAS. But it has rebuffed repeated calls for dialogue from the international community and named a new government hours before the summit.
Military governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, have said they will defend the junta in Niger.
WORRY ABOUT BAZOUM
Meanwhile, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations all said they were increasingly worried about Bazoum’s detention conditions.
The U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk on Friday said the conditions were “rapidly deteriorating” and could amount to a violation of international human rights law.
Human Rights Watch said it had spoken to Bazoum this week and that he had told them that his family’s treatment in custody was “inhuman and cruel”.
“My son is sick, has a serious heart condition, and needs to see a doctor,” HRW quoted Bazoum as telling it.
Bazoum’s daughter Zazia Bazoum, who is in France, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper the junta was keeping him in deplorable conditions to pressure him to sign a resignation letter. Reuters could not independently confirm the conditions of his detention.
(Additional reporting by Pap Saine in Banjul, Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Alberto Dabo in Bissau, Alphonso Toweh in Monrivia, Diadie Ba in Dakar, Pulcherie Adjoha, and Edward McAllister, Anait Miridzhanian, Nellie Peyton, David Lewis, Gareth Jones, Umaru Fofana; Writing by Ingrid Melander, Edward McAllister and Sofia Christensen; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Hugh Lawson and Cynthia Osterman)