Opposition urges swift election after Niger coup

Niger's political opposition urged the West African country's new military junta today to hold elections as soon as possible and restore civilian rule after a coup ousted its dictatorial president.

The call came as thousands of people rallied in the capital, Niamey, cramming around army trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns in a show of support for the junta which toppled Mamadou Tandja after he stayed in office months past his legal mandate.

The military turned against Mr Tandja two days ago, ousting him from power and announcing that a junta, led by little-known platoon commander Salou Djibo, was in charge.

Mohamed Bazoum, an opposition spokesman, said that his party has held no talks with the junta but expected to.

The demonstration came hours after a delegation from the 15-nation regional bloc, led by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar, arrived overnight to press for a peaceful restoration of civilian rule.

"The army loves the people and will always stand beside Niger," leading junta member, Colonel Djibril Adamou Harouna told the crowds. "We wanted to come here today to thank you for your support."

On Thursday, the army turned on Mr Tandja, raking the presidential palace with gunfire and whisking the ousted leader to a military barracks outside the capital.

The junta has vowed to turn Niger into "an example of democracy" after Mr Tandja stayed in office past his legal mandate, which expired in December. But the country's new rulers have not said how long they will hold power and some fear the move could increase the uranium-rich country's isolation.

Residents, at least those in the capital, appeared to overwhelmingly support the military action.

Mr Tandja had become deeply unpopular after pushing through a referendum in August which established a new constitution which removed presidential term limits. It also gave him greatly boosted powers and an unprecedented three-year extension of his rule before another round of elections could be held.

Before the referendum, he had been criticised for imposing rule by decree and dissolving parliament and the constitutional court because they opposed his plan to stay in power past his legal December 22 mandate.

"We're proud of our military!" screamed one woman at today's rally, where demonstrators held up hastily made signs scrawled with the words: "Long Live the Army."

"Tandja let everything go," said Amadou Madi, a 27-year-old electrician. "He was a thief and a crook. Our military was right to remove him."

Mr Tandja first rose to power in democratic elections in 1999 which were organised by a military junta that took control that year. Many of the military masterminds responsible for organising that ballot also took part in Thursday's coup, apparently disillusioned with Mr Tandja's refusal to step down.

Mr Tandja's attempt to stay in power prompted the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, known as Ecowas, to suspend Niger from its ranks, and the US and Europe cut off aid. Resumption of aid is likely to be dependent on the nation holding new elections.

In New York yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the coup, reiterating "his disapproval of unconstitutional changes of government as well as attempts to remain in power through unconstitutional means", UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

Mr Ban noted the junta's statement saying it intends to restore constitutional order and called on its members "to proceed swiftly with these efforts through a process that is consensual and that includes all segments of Nigerien society".

Senegal's Foreign Affairs Minister Madicke Niang told reporters in Niamey late yesterday that Ecowas was "hoping for a peaceful transition after the events of the last few days".

Niger has gained notoriety in recent years with a spate of kidnappings in its lawless northern deserts, where a low-level rebellion led by ethnic Tuareg insurgents finally calmed last year.

Al-Qaida's North Africa branch has claimed responsibility for taking a handful of foreigners hostage in the same region, including a Canadian later freed who was the UN's special envoy.

The desert country of 15 million is ranked at the bottom on the UN's worldwide human development index and has a 70% illiteracy rate.

The nation on the Sahara's southern edge has been perpetually battered by drought and desertification.

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