NIAMEY, Niger (AP) -- Gunfire broke out Thursday afternoon near the presidential palace in the uranium-rich West African desert nation of Niger as government ministers gathered there for a meeting.
The violence comes just months after a referendum was passed allowing President Mamadou Tandja to extend his rule for years past the constitutional limit in the West African nation.
An Associated Press correspondent heard gunshots for about 20 minutes and said frightened residents fled the downtown area of the capital. The gunfire then stopped but the downtown commercial area remained deserted.
There was no immediate comment from Niger's president, and government officials could not be reached for comment following the gunfire. National radio did not mention the developments in an afternoon report.
The opposition had protested the August 2009 referendum, saying it granted Tandja near-totalitarian powers. Tandja claimed he was only pushing to stay in power because his people had demanded it.
After three coups hit Niger between 1974 and 1999, Tandja twice won votes deemed fair. But in the waning months of his final term, he has gone down the path 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 is facing a dire threat and parliament is in place to monitor abuse.
Days later, the constitutional court ruled his referendum call illegal. Tandja responded by issuing a decree replacing the court with another, whose members he chose.
Niger is ranked fifth from last on the U.N.'s worldwide human development index and has an astounding 70 percent illiteracy rate. The nation on the Sahara's southern edge has been perpetually battered by drought and desertification. And these days, it has the world's highest population growth rate.