Wagner Group mercenaries may head to Niger in the wake of a military coup in the west African country last week, a top official has said.
Mutinous soldiers ousted Niger’s democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum in the coup which has been roundly condemned by Western countries, many of which saw Niger as the last reliable partner in efforts to battle jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region.
Andres Unga, Head of the Africa and Middle East Office at Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday (August 2) there had been signs of Niger following a path towards a more democratic order until the coup.
Mr Unga said demonstrators seen waving the Russian flag in Niger’s capital, Niamey, since the president’s ousting may point to Wagner Group involvement.
He told Estonian television channel ETV: “If we take a look at the countries bordering Niger – for example Mali – where there was a similar coup, or if we look at the Central African Republic, both of these have demonstrated hallmarks of the activities of the Wagner Group.
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“These flags don’t just emerge on the streets apropos of nothing. So we can see the ears, though we may not see the whole rabbit just yet.”
Mr Unga added: “If we examine the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa, these have never been purely military in character. There has also been a very strong economic element to this, meaning Wagner has also participated in transactions that have directly benefited them, be it in mining precious metals, or in oil.
“It is common knowledge that Niger has mineral resources, and my belief is that Wagner’s people have some interest in that. At the same time, it also has to be conceded that Wagner’s previous actions have made the countries of the region more cautious.
“But again, we do not know all the motives and thoughts going on inside the heads of the coup plotters. So I believe that something could arise there.”
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It comes after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigohzin hit out at suggestions his shady private military contractor was behind the ousting of President Bazum on July 26.
Meanwhile, Niger’s ruling junta and civil society groups urged the country to mobilize in Niamey on Thursday (August 3) to fight for freedom and push back against foreign interference.
Mahaman Sanoussi, interim coordinator for the M62 civil society group organizing the protest, said: “We are talking about the immediate departure of all foreign forces.
“(We’ll mobilize) against all forms of threats to continue the struggle for the sovereignty of the people. The dignity of the Nigerian people will be respected by all without exception.”
The march falls on the West African nation’s independence day from its former colonial ruler, France, and amid a spiking of anti-French sentiment.
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France has 1,500 soldiers in Niger who carry out joint operations with the country’s military. The United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday, new military ruler, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, lashed out at neighbouring countries and the international community, calling on the population to be ready to defend the nation.
Gen Tchiani said Niger will face difficult times ahead and that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value.
He called harsh sanctions – imposed last week by the West African bloc ECOWAS – illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented.
ECOWAS has also threatened to use force if President Bazoum, who remains under house arrest, is not released and reinstated by August 6.
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