By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – Two days after French President Emmanuel Macron announced that his envoy in Niger would return within several hours after deciding to withdraw his troops from the country, the whereabouts of Ambassador Sylvain Itte are unclear.
In a sudden about turn on Sunday, Macron said France’s 1,500 counter-terrorism troops would finally withdraw from its former colony after a two-month stand off since a military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum.
France has refused to recognise the new regime with Macron accusing it of holding the ambassador hostage.
The army that seized power in Niamey has revoked military cooperation agreements as well as the ambassador’s diplomatic immunity. It also demanded the ambassador leave almost a month ago.
Macron said he wanted an orderly withdrawal. The junta’s spokesman said on Monday evening that the envoy and troop withdrawal should be done in a negotiated framework and with a joint agreement.
But French diplomatic sources said they believe putsch leaders are using the ambassador and his team as a way to inflict maximum humiliation on Paris.
France has already had to withdraw troops from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, where they now no longer have ambassadors.
Itte, a career diplomat, who in his previous posting was an ambassador fighting disinformation across the continent, has seen conditions at the embassy progressively worsen.
The embassy has been in lockdown for several weeks with sporadic protests around it raising pressure on Paris to bring back its envoy, something that Macron had stoically refused to do out of principle.
According to diplomatic sources, electricity and water has been cut, and the team have been living on military rations.
There were no visible signs of any abnormal activity around the embassy on Tuesday.
When asked about the fate of the ambassador, French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre declined to say how he would come back, or acknowledge that there were issues with his return.
She also declined to say whether he was still in Niamey and how many diplomatic personnel were still at the embassy.
“We will not be taken hostage by the putschists,” Legendre told a daily press briefing.
Diplomats said embassies in the region have some reserves, fuel and an emergency generator but that would be running low, placing even more pressure on Paris to compromise with the junta.
“The Nigeriens will no doubt want that he leaves with his tail between the legs and that it is all filmed,” said a French diplomatic source speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.
“Given he no longer has diplomatic immunity they can do what they want with him.”
France officially refutes the junta’s assertions he no longer has immunity. Legendre said that despite the withdrawal announcement Paris was still working to restore the constitutional order in Niger.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Bate Felix and Sharon Singleton)