Friday, February 19, 2010

NIAMEY, Niger | Renegade soldiers in armored vehicles stormed Niger’s presidential palace with a hail of gunfire in broad daylight Thursday, kidnapping the country’s strongman president and then appearing on state television to declare they staged a successful coup.

The soldiers also said on state TV that the country’s constitution had been suspended and all its institutions dissolved. The spokesman for the soldiers said the country is now being led by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and asked citizens and the international community to have faith in them.

Smoke rose from the white-hued multistory palace complex in the capital, Niamey, and the echo of machine-gun fire for at least 20 minutes sent frightened residents running for cover, emptying the desert city’s downtown boulevards at midday.

Traore Amadou, a local journalist who was in the presidential palace when the shooting began, said President Mamadou Tandja was kidnapped by mutinous troops.

French radio station Radio France Internationale reported that the soldiers burst in, and neutralized the presidential guard before entering the room where Mr. Tandja was holding a Cabinet meeting. They politely escorted him outside to a waiting car that drove him toward a military camp on the outskirts of the capital. His whereabouts remained unknown hours later when the soldiers took to the airwaves to announce the coup.

Mr. Tandja first took power in democratic elections in 1999 that followed an era of coups and rebellions. But instead of stepping down as mandated by law on Dec. 22, he triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new constitution in August that removed term limits and gave him near-totalitarian powers.

Niger has become increasingly isolated since then, with the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states suspending Niger from its ranks and the U.S. government cutting off non-humanitarian aid and imposing travel restrictions on some government officials.

The ease with which Niger’s democratic institutions have been swept aside has marked a setback for a region struggling to shake off autocratic rulers. In Guinea, a military junta seized power in December 2008 after the death of the country’s longtime dictator, only to have the junta leader go into voluntary exile after he survived an assassination attempt a year later.

Niger’s latest troubles began suddenly Thursday afternoon, when gunfire broke out around the impoverished nation’s small presidential palace.

Mr. Tandja had just gathered government ministers for a Cabinet meeting when the gunfire erupted outside.

State radio stopped broadcasting for 15 minutes during the incident, but went on the air again afterward and did not mention the developments in an afternoon report.

Soldiers blocked off streets around the presidential compound and nothing has been heard from Mr. Tandja since.

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