Niger coup fears as president vanishes

Niger’s president was missing today after gunmen stormed his palace amid heavy gunfire.

Amid fears President Mamadou Tandja had become the victim of a coup sources told the BBC that he was being held by troops after being captured as he chaired his weekly cabinet meeting.

The violence comes just months after a referendum was passed allowing Mr Tandja to extend his rule for years past the constitutional limit in the uranium-rich West African nation.

The opposition had protested at the August 2009 referendum, saying it granted Mr Tandja near-totalitarian powers. He claimed he was only pushing to stay in power because his people had demanded it.

After three coups hit Niger between 1974 and 1999, Mr Tandja twice won votes declared fair. But in the waning months of his final term, he took the route of many long-serving African despots, breaking a promise he had frequently made to step down when his term expired in December.

Troubles began in late May, when he dissolved parliament because it opposed his referendum plan. The move was legal, but in June, he invoked extraordinary powers to rule by decree. The constitution, however, says he could only do so if the nation was facing a dire threat and parliament is in place to monitor abuse.

Days later, the constitutional court ruled his referendum call illegal. Mr Tandja responded by issuing a decree replacing the court with another, whose members he chose.

Niger is ranked fifth from last on the UN’s worldwide human development index and has a 70% illiteracy rate.

The former French colony on the Sahara’s southern edge has been perpetually battered by drought and desertification.

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