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Coup leaders suspend Niger's constitution Add to ...

Mutinous soldiers have seized power in Niger after capturing the President and cabinet in a violent coup, spiriting them away to an unknown location in the aftermath of a gun battle that killed at least three people.

A spokesman for the coup plotters, wearing a military uniform and surrounded by soldiers, went on national television last night to declare that Niger's constitution had been suspended and a group calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy had taken power.

Asking Niger's people to stay calm, the spokesman said the coup was a "patriotic action" to "save Niger and its population from poverty, deception and corruption." He said the coup leaders wanted to "turn Niger into an example of democracy and good governance."

The plotters seemed in command of the West African country last night, with tanks rumbling through the streets and troops surrounding the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey. State radio was playing military music, as it did in previous military coups in the 1990s.

One report, quoting a military source, said the coup was led by an army officer, Major Adamou Harouna. Some reports said President Mamadou Tandja and his cabinet were being held at an army barracks on the outskirts of the capital.

Mr. Tandja sparked international condemnation last year by dissolving parliament and extending his own rule beyond the constitutional limit of two terms in office.

He held a widely criticized referendum that abolished many of the limits on his power. When the constitutional court ruled that the referendum was illegal, Mr. Tandja simply abolished the court and appointed his own supporters to it. International sanctions were imposed and the country was left isolated.

While its people are impoverished, Niger is mineral-rich. It is one of the world's biggest uranium producers, and many Canadian gold and uranium mining companies are active there. Canada is believed to be the second-biggest foreign investor, behind France.

The country has been politically unstable for decades, plagued by coups and rebellions, including three coups between 1974 and 1999. Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were kidnapped by Islamic militants in Niger in 2008 while on a United Nations mission to try to resolve the conflict between Mr. Tandja's government and rebel forces in the uranium-rich north of the country.

The military coup in Niger is the latest blow to efforts of African leaders to strengthen democracy across the continent. Coups have erupted across Africa in recent years, from Guinea and Mauritania to Madagascar and now Niger. While civilian rule is apparently being restored in Mauritania and Guinea, other regimes in countries such as Ivory Coast and Madagascar have continued to postpone elections that were demanded by the international community.

The 15-nation West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, was quick to denounce the military coup in Niger. Its chairman, Nigerian acting president Goodluck Jonathan, said the organization "condemns once again all acts of ascension to power and remaining in power by unconstitutional means."

The drama began at about midday yesterday in Niamey, where Mr. Tandja was holding a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace. Soldiers in armoured vehicles attacked the building, heavy gunfire and loud explosions were heard for more than an hour and plumes of smoke were seen rising from the palace. Tanks were seen firing, and several injured soldiers were carried to hospital, while civil servants ducked for cover or locked themselves in their offices. Soon the streets were deserted, with shops closing early.

In their television statement last night, the coup leaders announced that a curfew was in effect and the borders were closed. Two planes were diverted from landing in Niamey, including an Air France passenger jet and the private plane of the Senegalese Foreign Minister, who had been dispatched to Niger to try to resolve the crisis.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the coup was partly a response to Mr. Tandja's attempt to keep power. He implied that Mr. Tandja might have only himself to blame.

"President Tandja has been trying to extend his mandate in office," Mr. Crowley said. "And obviously, that may well have been, you know, an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today."

He said the United States does not support the coup, but he added, "Clearly, we think this underscores that Niger needs to move ahead with the elections and the formation of a new government."

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