Niger junta orders police to expel French ambassador

FILE PHOTO: Pro-junta protesters gather outside the French Embassy in Niamey

NIAMEY (Reuters) -Niger's ruling junta has ordered police to expel France's ambassador, a move marking a further downturn in relations, and one that authorities in Paris said the army officers who seized power in Niamey last month had no authority to make.

The coup's leaders are following the strategy of juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in distancing themselves from the region's former colonial power amid a wave of anti-French sentiment.

The visas of French ambassador Sylvain Itte and his family have been cancelled and police are instructed to expel the envoy, the junta said in a statement dated Aug. 29 and confirmed as authentic on Thursday by its communications head.

Instigators of the coup last Friday ordered Itte to leave the country within 48 hours in response to what they called actions by France "contrary to the interests of Niger".

It said these included the envoy's refusal to respond to an invitation to meet Niger's new foreign minister.

The coup has been condemned by regional African authorities and Western nations. West Africa's regional body ECOWAS imposed sanctions on Niger that have hampered the delivery of food and aid to one of the world's poorest countries.

The bloc has also threatened to intervene militarily if diplomatic efforts to restore democracy through dialogue fail.

European Union foreign ministers agreed on Thursday to start drafting sanctions against individuals behind the putsch.

Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu, who is also the current chair of ECOWAS, on Thursday said a military takeover in Gabon this week confirmed his fears of "copy cats" doing the same in other countries.

He reiterated that military intervention should be a last resort in Niger but said "if we don't wield the big stick, we will all suffer the consequences together".

France has called for Niger's ousted president Mohamed Bazoum to be returned to office and said it would support efforts by ECOWAS to overturn the coup.

France had made Niger the cornerstone of counter-insurgency operations against an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region that has killed thousands over the past ten years, with around 1,500 soldiers in the country who support the local military.

It redefined its strategy after thousands withdrew from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso following the coups there.

Paris has not officially recognised a decision by the junta to revoke bilateral military agreements, saying these had been signed with Niger's "legitimate authorities."

Similarly, the French foreign ministry said on Thursday the coup leader did not have the authority to ask the ambassador to leave, adding that it was "constantly assessing the security and operating conditions of our embassy".

President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday the ambassador would stay in Niger and reiterated France's support for Bazoum.

(Reporting by Boureima Balima and Moussa Aksar in Niamey, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Anait Miridzhanian and Sofia Christensen; Editing by Alexander Winning and John Stonestreet)