The US has ordered the evacuation of some staff and families from its embassy in Niger after last week’s coup, the state department has said, as secretary of state Antony Blinken said the White House was committed to restoring the stricken country’s government.
Niger is a key western ally in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the region. Foreign powers have condemned the takeover, fearing it could allow the militants to gain ground.
“Given ongoing developments in Niger and out of an abundance of caution, the Department of State is ordering the temporary departure of non-emergency US government personnel and eligible family members from the US embassy in Niamey,” state department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement, adding that the mission would remain open and senior leadership would continue working from there.
Blinken told Niger’s ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, in a phone call on Wednesday that the US remained committed to the restoration of the democratically elected government, the state department also said.
Miller said the US remained “diplomatically engaged at the highest levels”, adding that the embassy remained open for limited, emergency services to US citizens.
The US announcement came as the self-declared new leader of Niger said the junta would not reinstate Bazoum despite pressure from neighbouring countries.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has imposed sanctions on Niger and said it could authorise the use of force if the coup leaders do not restore Bazoum’s presidency within a week from last Sunday. The bloc sent a delegation to Niger on Wednesday to negotiate with the coup leaders.
In a televised address, Gen Abdourahamane Tiani said the junta “rejects these sanctions altogether and refuses to give into any threats, wherever they come from. We refuse any interference in the internal affairs of Niger.”
Ecowas has struggled to contain a democratic backslide in west Africa and vowed that coups would no longer be tolerated after military takeovers in member states Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, and an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau, in the last two years.
“The military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality,” said Abdel-Fatau Musah, Ecowas commissioner for political affairs, peace and security.
“There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite.”
Tiani, the former head of Bazoum’s presidential guard, shut Bazoum in his palace last week and later declared himself head of state.
The 15-nation regional bloc has taken its hardest line yet on the coup, prompting Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by juntas, to say that any military intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them too.
On Wednesday, the World Bank suspended disbursements to Niger, except for private-sector partnerships, in another blow to the military leaders.
Niger has one of the largest World Bank portfolios in Africa, amounting to $4.5bn covering the country’s priority sectors, and it has also received $600m in direct budget support from the bank between 2022 and 2023.
France, the US, Germany and Italy all have troops in Niger on counterinsurgency and training missions, helping the army to fight groups linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State. France and Italy began evacuating European citizens from Niger on Tuesday.
The first group of British nationals had also been evacuated, the UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said. The Britons left Niger on a French flight on Wednesday evening and the Foreign Office said a team in Paris was “ready to support them on landing”.
“The UK’s ambassador and a core team remain in Niger to support the very small number of British nationals who are still there,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said.
There has been no announcement of troops being withdrawn so far. There are about 1,100 American troops in Niger, where the US military operates from two bases.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report