Niger closed its airspace on Sunday until further notice, citing the threat of military intervention from a regional bloc after coup leaders rejected a deadline to reinstate the country’s ousted president.
“In the face of the threat of intervention that is becoming more apparent … Nigerien airspace is closed effective from today,” a junta representative said in a statement on national television on Sunday evening.
He said there had been a pre-deployment of forces in two central African countries in preparation for an intervention, but did not give details.
“Niger’s armed forces and all our defence and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” the representative said.
Defence chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have agreed a possible military action plan, including when and where to strike, if Mohamed Bazoum was not released and reinstated by the Sunday deadline.
Ecowas did not respond to a request for comment on what its next steps would be. A spokesperson earlier said it would issue a statement at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, Italy’s foreign minister said Ecowas should prolong its deadline for Bazoum’s reinstatement.
Antonio Tajani said in an interview published on Monday: “The only way is the diplomatic one. I hope that the ultimatum of [Ecowas], which expired last night at midnight, will be extended today,” he told La Stampa newspaper.
Earlier, thousands of junta supporters flocked to a stadium in Niamey, the capital, cheering the decision not to stand down by Sunday following the power grab on 26 July that toppled democratically elected Bazoum.
The coup, the seventh in west and central Africa in three years, has rocked the Sahel region, one of the poorest in the world. Given its uranium and oil riches and its pivotal role in a war with Islamist militants, Niger holds great importance for the US, Europe, China and Russia.
Niger last week revoked military cooperation agreements with France, which has between 1,000 and 1,500 troops in the country.
Sunday’s television broadcasts included a roundtable debate on encouraging solidarity in the face of Ecowas sanctions, which have led to power cuts and soaring food prices.
Any military intervention could be complicated by a promise from juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso to come to Niger’s defence if needed, saying any military intervention against the new military rulers in Niger would be regarded as a “declaration of war”. France announced on Sunday that it was suspending development aid and budgetary assistance to Burkina Faso.
Bazoum’s prime minister, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, said on Saturday in Paris that the ousted government still believed a last-minute agreement was possible.
On Sunday, Italy said it had reduced its troop numbers in Niger to make room in its military base for Italian civilians who may need protection if security deteriorates.