President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday announced that France would withdraw its ambassador from Niger, followed by the French military contingent in the coming months, in a move welcomed by Niger’s military leaders as a “step towards sovereignty”.
Macron’s announcement comes two months after a coup in the west African country that ousted the pro-Paris president Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.
“France has decided to withdraw its ambassador. In the next hours our ambassador and several diplomats will return to France”, Macron told French television in an interview, without giving details over how this would be organised.
Macron added that military cooperation was “over” and French troops would withdraw in “the months and weeks to come” with a full pullout “by the end of the year”.
Niger’s military rulers responded swiftly in a statement read out on national television.
“This Sunday, we celebrate a new step towards the sovereignty of Niger. This is a historic moment, which speaks to the determination and will of the Nigerien people”, said the statement from the military rulers.
Earlier Sunday the Agency for the Safety of Air Navigation in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA) said on its website that the military rulers had banned “French aircraft” from flying over the country’s airspace.
It was not clear if this would affect the ambassador being flown out.
In his comments, Macron said that “in the weeks and months to come, we will consult with the putschists, because we want this to be done peacefully”.
France keeps about 1,500 soldiers in Niger as part of an anti-jihadist deployment in the Sahel region. Macron said the post-coup authorities “no longer wanted to fight against terrorism”.
Niger’s military leaders had told French ambassador Sylvain Itte to leave the country after they overthrew Bazoum.
But a 48-hour ultimatum for him to leave, issued in August, passed with him still in place as the French government refused to comply, or to recognise the military regime as legitimate.
Earlier this month, Macron said the ambassador and his staff were “literally being held hostage” in the mission, eating military rations with no food deliveries.
In Sunday’s interview, Macron reaffirmed France’s position that Bazoum was being held “hostage” and remained the “sole legitimate authority” in the country.
“He was targeted by this coup d’etat because he was carrying out courageous reforms and because there was a largely ethnic settling of scores and a lot of political cowardice,” he argued.