afrol News, 18 February - Smoke is rising from the presidential palace in Niamey, Niger. Soldiers are to have President Mamadou Tandja and the army Chief of Staff in their detention, Niger media report. Currently, the Niger coup-makers seem to be in control of Niamey.
However, the presidential guard is still loyal to the government. Heavy gunfire erupted in central parts of Niamey, Niger's capital, about noon, local time, persisting many hours into the afternoon. Dispersed fighting is continued after dark, being most intensive around the presidential palace and government offices.
According to the Nigerien press, soldiers have captured President Tandja and his entire government. The attack on the presidential palace came as Mr Tandja chaired a cabinet meeting, these sources confirm. Witnesses claim to have seen the President was taken out of the palace to unknown whereabouts by armed soldiers.
This has not yet been confirmed by forces loyal to the President, which during the afternoon maintained Mr Tandja was safe and in his presidential offices. The President has however not been seen in public since troops attacked the presidential palace.
In central Niamey, the coup-makers during the afternoon seemed to have improved their situation, setting up road blocks at central and strategic locations. At the time, only the presidential guard seemed to put up resistance.
While there have been no reports of troop movements outside the capital, it remains unsure how the Nigerien army is reacting to the coup. Local reporters say that also the home of Niger's army chief of staff General Boureima Moumouni is under siege, with all roads to his house being blocked. This could indicate that the coup is led by junior officers and not approved off by the army leadership.
There are reports of several wounded soldiers that have been brought to Niamey hospitals. At least three soldiers reportedly have been killed in the shooting. During Thursday, there came no reports of civilian causalities.
Thursday evening, the situation in Niamey remained unclear, with no one coming forward to take responsibility for the coup. Nothing has been heard of President Tandja and his cabinet, which most observers now believe is held captive by the coupists. Control of Niamey seems firmly in the hands of the coup-makers and gun firing is heard only seldom.
Tensions before the cuop
Tensions have been building up in Niger lately as the thus widely respected and popular President forced through a constitutional reform that assured his right to be re-elected for a third term. By doing this too close up to the elections, the West African community of states ECOWAS excluded Niger from the regional body for violating democracy ground principles. Also the US and EU have frozen aid to Niger.
During the last year, political tension therefore has built up in Niger, one of the world's poorest countries. The political opposition claims President Tandja was couping democratic principles thus far respected in Niger by changing the constitution last year.
While the coup-makers are still known and their motives can be only speculated on, most observers put the coup attempt in connection with the mounting political tension in Niger. Many Nigeriens hold that President Tandja had lost his democratic legitimacy by forcing through a changed constitution and not respecting rulings from the country's constitutional court.
Mamadou Tandja (born 1938), himself a retired lieutenant colonel, came to power through democratic elections in 1999, when he was leader of the opposition. He was re-elected in 2004.
As Nigerien President, Mr Tandja until 2009 was widely popular and known to be dedicated to the economic development of the impoverished country. Also internationally, Mr Tandja was recognised for his ECOWAS chairmanship in 2005-07 and in his active role as mediator in several regional conflicts, most notably the political succession crisis in Togo.
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