NIAMEY, Niger – A top leader of Niger's new military junta defended last week's coup, saying Sunday the army overthrew the uranium-rich nation's dictatorial president to restore democracy after he refused to step down when his mandate expired.
Col. Djibrilla Hima Hamidou spoke after talks with a delegation of senior diplomats from the United Nations, the African Union and a West African regional bloc. The diplomats told reporters they were encouraged by junta assurances that it would restore civilian rule through elections "as soon as possible" and establish a new constitution after a dialogue with political and civil groups.
Mutinous troops turned against President Mamadou Tandja on Thursday, attacking the presidential palace in daylight while a Cabinet meeting was under way. The surprise assault allowed the putschists to disable the entire government, which was immediately dissolved, in one fell swoop.
The coup — which left several soldiers dead — has been condemned by the U.N., African regional bodies and foreign governments, including the U.S. But many in the capital, at least, appear relieved that their president-turned dictator is out of power.
Hamidou compared the latest coup to the desert nation's last one, in 1999, during which a junta composed of many of the same officers went on to organize democratic elections that Tandja won twice.
"This is not an army with a putschist tradition, that is not the case," Hamidou told reporters at a military barracks in Niamey. "In 1999 we had a similar situation. We gave power back and we had 10 years of stability."
This time, Hamidou said: "We are going to do the same thing."
Tandja had grown deeply unpopular after forcing through a highly criticized referendum in August that replaced the country's constitution with a new one containing no ban on how many times he could run for president. It also gave him an unprecedented three-year extension of his rule before another round of elections could be held.
In the months before the referendum, Tandja had already gone the way of despots across the continent: cracking down on the press, jailing opponents, imposing rule by decree and dissolving parliament and the constitutional court because they opposed his plan to stay in office.
After Tandja's legal mandate expired Dec. 22, the U.S. and Europe cut off non-humanitarian aid, vital to a country that is one of the world's poorest.
The crisis continued, however, and negotiations to resolve it hit a dead end.
"We gave time to see if the political actors could find a compromise solution, but it didn't happen," Hamidou said. "Tensions rose, and (the crisis) had to be stopped ... we are now trying to restore legality."
Economic Community of West African States chief Mohamed Ibn Chambas said after talks with junta leaders including their chief, squadron leader Salou Djibo, that the visiting diplomats had pressed the putschists to restore "constitutional civilian rule."
"We were encouraged by the fact that the authorities themselves are mindful that this is not their normal function, and they are eager to finish this task and to go back to their normal military and security duties," Chambas said.
The junta has yet to lay out a timetable for elections, Chambas said, but its leader said they want a ballot to happen soon and the date would depend on a national dialogue involving political and civil society leaders.
"They said they want a short transition that will end as soon as possible," Chambas added.
Nothing has been heard of Tandja since he was spirited away by soldiers during Thursday's attack. Hamidou said the toppled leader is being held in a presidential villa and the International Red Cross will be allowed to visit him Monday.
Hamidou declined to elaborate on what Tandja's fate would be, saying only: "for now, we are taking care of his security and his health."
By Sunday, all but three ministers had been released from house arrest, Hamidou said. Those still being guarded include the prime minister and the interior and finance ministers.
A Niamey-based diplomat said several older, pro-Tandja military generals had also been put under house arrest when the coup began because they could not be trusted. Hamidou, however, said no member of the armed forces was being held.
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 U.N.'s special envoy.
The desert country of 15 million is ranked at the bottom 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 severe food shortages.
Associated Press Writer Dalatou Mamane contributed to this report.