Senior US official held ‘difficult’ talks with Niger coup leaders in bid for diplomacy

A top State Department official met with Niger’s junta leaders, urging them to back down from an attempted coup in the country and pushing for the release of the detained president.

Victoria Nuland, the acting deputy secretary of State, said in a call with reporters late Monday night that she held “extremely frank” and “difficult” talks with the nation’s self-proclaimed chief of defense, Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, and three colonels supporting him. 

The U.S., France and regional leaders in Africa are pushing for Niger’s coup leaders to abandon their overthrow of the democratic government or risk a military confrontation threatened by neighbors in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and led by Nigeria.

Niger’s junta refused to step down by a Sunday deadline set by ECOWAS, and the heads of state of member nations are set to meet on Thursday to discuss next steps. They have said military intervention is a “last resort.”

The U.S. has carefully called the military takeover in Niger, which was launched on July 26, an “attempted coup” to maintain diplomatic channels that would otherwise be shut by a formal declaration. 

Nuland’s visit to the capital of Niamey made her the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet face-to-face with Niger’s military junta, whose leaders have a long and personal history working with the American military.

Nuland was blunt about how Barmou and his backers were uncompromising in the face of U.S. offers for mediation, and that the military officials rejected Biden administration calls to meet with Niger’s detained president, Mohamed Bazoum, who is under house arrest with his family. 

“We kept open the door to continue talking. But again, it was difficult today, and I will be straight up about that,” she said. 

“We’ve talked to [Bazoum] on the phone, but we haven’t seen him – and that was never granted,” she added.

“We also asked for some gestures of health and welfare; he is in a very difficult situation under virtual house arrest, along with his son and his wife. I hope, over the coming period, the people responsible for the current situation will come back to those requests.”

Nuland also said that Barmou also rejected requests for U.S. officials to meet with the leader of the attempted coup, Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani. 

“We also were not granted an opportunity to see the self- proclaimed president, Mr. Tiani. So we were left to have to depend on Mr. Barmou to make clear, again, what is at stake.”

Niger hosts more than 1,000 U.S. troops in the country who worked closely with Nigerien forces in counterterrorism operations and provided training and assistance. The U.S. has “paused” more than $100 million in security and development assistance to the government in response to the coup, but had yet to change its military posture in the country as of Monday. 

Barmou, who was a colonel before the coup was launched, has a long history of working with U.S. special forces, and Nuland said this allowed her to go into “considerable detail the risks to aspects of our cooperation that he has historically cared about a lot. So we are hopeful that that will sink in.”

Nuland also warned Niger’s military junta against inviting Russia’s Wagner mercenary group into the country to provide military support. U.S. officials have said they view Wagner as an extension of the Russian government. Wagner forces hold active contracts with African governments acting as supplemental military forces but are accused of atrocities against civilians and of illicit business dealings.  

“Of course I raised … Wagner and its threat to those countries where it is present, reminding them that security gets worse, that human rights get worse when Wagner enters. I would not say that we learned much more about their thinking on that front.”

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