The military junta that seized power in Niger last month said over the weekend it would prosecute the ousted president for treason, though a mediator said coup leaders were open to talks with counties of West Africa threatened to intervene militarily, the first sign of a thaw after nearly three weeks of rising tensions.
Since rebel soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger on July 26, they have kept him isolated in his private residence in Niamey, the capital, along with his wife and one of their children; dissolved his government; and, according to US officials, vowed to kill him if West African countries intervened militarily.
On Sunday, the junta member acting as speaker, Col. Amadou Abdramane, said that Mr. Bazoum will face charges of “high treason” and “undermining Niger’s internal and external security” after the democratically elected president held talks with foreign leaders and international organizations while in prison.
Last month’s coup in Niger sparked one of the worst political crises in recent years in West Africa, following a series of military seizures in a region already troubled by Islamist insurgencies, some of the most severe of climate change and widespread poverty in the world. .
It also raised questions about the future of Western aid to Niger, which under Mr. Bazoum is a security ally of countries like the United States and a favored recipient of funds from European countries hoping to stem migration to their continent. More than 2,500 Western troops, including about 1,100 Americans, are posted in Niger to train the country’s military and help track down extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
A regional bloc in West Africa, the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, said it would activate a “standby force” to intervene against Niger’s coup leaders if they are not released and returned. Mr. Bazoum.
But experts doubt that the West African countries, which already struggle with domestic insecurity and lack military equipment, can mount a successful operation against a Nigerien military that has received years of training in West. They also warned that a regional conflict could have devastating consequences in an area where extremist groups have expanded their grip in recent years.
President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, the current chairman of the West African bloc, said force would be used as a last resort. On Sunday, Niger’s coup leaders said they were open to talks with the bloc, according to a religious figure from Nigeria who was welcomed by the junta leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, as part of mediation talks.
In a sign that events in Niger could have consequences beyond West Africa, the African Union met on Monday to discuss the crisis.
“The African Union is against the use of standby force for this case, but there is no public dispute” in West Africa’s bloc, said Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, a former African Union official and current head of faculty at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center. , based in Ghana.
“To destroy it publicly will destroy the organization,” he said of the West African bloc.
The West African bloc and the US State Department on Monday condemned the junta’s plan to prosecute Mr. Bazoum.
From his private residence, Mr. Bazoum remained in contact with foreign officials including the US secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, as well as several members of his government. Mr. Bazoum called on the United States to help restore constitutional order in Niger, writing in a opinion essay published earlier this month in The Washington Post that he was held hostage by the military junta.
Mr. also said Bazoum Human Rights Watch last week she was without electricity and fresh food, and her captors refused to treat her son, who she said had a heart condition.
On Sunday, Colonel Abdramane, the junta’s spokesman, said the new government had gathered enough evidence to prosecute Mr. Bazoum based on his contacts with foreign heads of state and international organizations.
He did not provide details on the charges, or a date for a trial. Under Niger’s penal code, treason is punishable by death.
Colonel Abdramane also said that a doctor visited Mr. Bazoum and his family on Saturday and did not raise alarms about the family’s health, a claim that could not be independently verified.
On Sunday, thousands of junta supporters flocked to the country’s largest stadium for the second week in a row, as a popular pro-military singer gave a concert in tribute to the country’s new leaders.
Praising the new general in power, the crowds chanted “Say Tchiani,” or “We need Tchiani” in Hausa, one of the main languages spoken in Niger. The tune used to be a signature of supporters of Mr. Bazoum, who sang “Say Bazoum” in his successful 2020 presidential bid.
There was no mention of the democratically elected president in the stadium stands.
Omar Hama Saley contributed reporting from Niamey, Niger, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.