EU to prepare ground for sanctions on Niger coup leaders - Borrell

FILE PHOTO: Informal meeting of EU defence ministers in Toledo

By Andrew Gray and David Latona

TOLEDO, Spain (Reuters) - The European Union is moving ahead with the legal groundwork to impose sanctions on members of a junta that seized power in Niger last month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday.

In deciding on sanctions, the EU will aim to mirror any measures taken by the West African regional body ECOWAS, Borrell said.

"We will follow, trying to implement the same kinds of sanctions that they have decided," Borrell told reporters after a meeting of EU defence ministers in Toledo, Spain.

Borrell said he would propose establishing a legal framework for sanctions against those responsible for the coup when EU foreign ministers meet on Thursday, also in Toledo.

In declaring that the EU would be guided by ECOWAS decisions on sanctions, Borrell was sticking to a mantra that the EU has stressed since the July 26 coup that any solution to the crisis should be African-led.

However, when Borrell was asked whether the EU would provide financial support if ECOWAS decided on a military intervention in Niger, he said the bloc would consider any such request, rather than automatically approve it.

"We haven't got any specific request," he added.

Borrell said the coup had added fresh instability to the Sahel region of West and Central Africa, which he said was "already very fragile".

Adding to Western concerns about Islamist militant groups in the region, Russia's Wagner mercenary group has become a key player there in recent years.

Borrell said he expected Wagner to remain active in Africa despite the recent death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash two months after he led an aborted mutiny against Russia's military leadership.

"I'm sure they'll quickly find a replacement for the late Wagner leader. They will remain operational in Africa because it is the armed wing of Russia," he said.

Moscow "can't send regular troops because it would be too egregious," he said. "They (Wagner) will continue to serve Putin and do what they do, which is certainly not contributing to peace in the Sahel or defending rights and freedoms of the people of the Sahel."

ECOWAS and the EU have already imposed some punitive measures as a result of the coup in Niger.

ECOWAS suspended commercial transactions with Niger, froze its state assets in the regional central bank, suspended assets of the state and state enterprises in commercial banks, and halted financial assistance with regional development banks.

The EU suspended its financial support and cooperation on security with Niger with immediate effect.

But a new sanctions framework would give the EU the legal basis to impose sanctions on specific individuals and organisations considered responsible for the coup.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Andrew Gray, David Latona and Bart Meijer; Editing by Mike Harrison)