Residents of Niger’s capital Niamey on Wednesday reported hearing gunfire overnight near the presidency, days before new president Mohamed Bazoum is due to take office, Arab News reports.
“It was around 3.00 am, we heard shots from heavy and light weapons and it lasted 15 minutes before stopping, followed by shots from light weapons,” one resident of Niamey’s Plateau district, which includes the president’s official residence and offices, told AFP.
“The gunfire lasted about 20 minutes,” another resident said.
A third resident spoke of “intense shooting, with heavy and light weapons.” Online newspaper actuniger.com reported that calm had returned by around 4.00 am.
In short video clips posted on social networks, only several seconds in length, sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard in the pitch dark. It was not yet possible to independently verify the location and timing of the videos. No official source was immediately available to comment.
According to Yahoo News, soldiers were arrested in Niger after an “attempted coup” early Wednesday, a security source said after gunfire broke out in the capital Niamey, adding “the situation is under control”.
“There were some arrests among a few members of the army who are behind this attempted coup,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Presidential Guard retaliated, preventing this group of soldiers from approaching the presidential palace,” said the source.
The alleged coup comes ahead of Bazoum’s scheduled inauguration on Friday and as Niger faces a growing threat from Islamic extremists near its troubled border with Mali. The former interior minister and right-hand man of outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou, Bazoum’s victory in the second round of the election on February 2 was confirmed by the constitutional court this month.
The results were contested by Bazoum’s rival, former president Mahamane Ousmane, who claimed he was the real winner. Ousmane had called for “peaceful marches” across the country, but a planned opposition protest Wednesday in the capital Niamey was banned a day earlier by authorities.
The U.S. Embassy in Niamey put out a security alert saying it would be closed Wednesday “due to gunshots heard near our neighborhood.”
“All personnel are encouraged to stay home until further notice,” it said.
Just over a week ago, gunmen on motorcycles attacked a series of villages in the volatile border region, leaving at least 137 people dead in the deadliest violence to strike Niger in recent memory. Those attacks came on the same day that the constitutional court certified Bazoum’s electoral victory.
In January, at least 100 people were killed in villages, the same day that Niger announced the presidential election would go to a second round on Feb. 21.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, has suffered numerous coups in its history, most recently a February 2010 putsch which toppled then president Mamadou Tandja. The Sahel country has also recently been struck by repeated extremist attacks as Islamist movements have spilled over from neighboring Mali and Nigeria.