Nigerien troops stormed the presidential complex amid deadly gun battles in Niamey yesterday and seized President Mamadou Tandja and his cabinet in a coup d'etat.
International news agencies reported that "gunfire and loud explosions reverberated across the city as soldiers assaulted the palace where Tandja, the country's strongman for the past decade, presided over a cabinet meeting."
Diplomatic source said that Tandja's own presidential guard took part in the coup.
"It happened after a cabinet meeting. It would appear that President Tandja is currently in the hands of the rebels and that the members of the government are themselves held," the diplomat said.
The diplomat based in the world's third-biggest uranium producer confirmed the capture, saying several senior government figures had been arrested. "Tandja is among them. The rebels have taken the upper hand," he said.
State radio suspended its programmes and played martial music as the West African country's long-simmering political tensions erupted. Tandja, 71, has spent more than a decade in power, having extended his term through a controversial referendum last August after dissolving parliament and the constitutional court.
Niger has since been isolated on the international stage. Witnesses said they saw the bodies of at least three soldiers being lifted out of a badly-damaged armoured vehicle which pulled up outside the morgue of the main hospital. One said he had seen a rocket striking the vehicle.
France, the former colonial power, urged its nationals to stay indoors in a country where French nuclear giant Areva is the biggest private employer. "We heard automatic gunfire and then large detonations. The house was shaking. It lasted about a half hour, non-stop," said Claire Deschamps, one French national living in Niamey.
She said the violence began around 1200 GMT. Army helicopters hovered over the presidency during the afternoon. Sporadic shooting continued into the afternoon before gradually subsiding.
The city was largely calm as the population fled into their homes and soldiers deployed across the city. An AFP correspondent outside the presidency complex said he saw an armoured personnel carrier driven out of the palace gates before he was ordered away by a soldier.
The African Union condemned the violence in Niger, the latest in a litany of states such as Guinea, Madagascar and Mauritania, where coups and unrest have replaced democratic rule.
"We are always concerned when there is threat of a coup or reports on an ongoing 'coup d'etat' in Africa. It is contrary to what we want the continent to be, that is a continent free of coups," the AU's security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said in Addis Ababa.
ECOWAS Chairman and Acting President of Nigeria, Goodluck Johathan, expressed the regional bloc's "deep concern" over the apparent coup bid. The 15-nation bloc has been mediating talks aimed at resolving the country's crisis.
After dissolving parliament, Tandja went on to stage parliamentary elections in October, which led ECOWAS to suspend Niger's membership. The European Union suspended development aid and the United States imposed sanctions. Talks between Niger's government and the opposition to end the political standoff were suspended last week, having repeatedly stalled since they began on December 21.
Mediator and former Nigerian Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar has drawn up a road map for a solution which proposes keeping Tandja in power during a transition period led by a "government of national reconciliation."
Thousands of demonstrators took part in a rally outside parliament last Sunday blaming Tandja for the talks failure. A French colony for six decades until 1960, Niger derives most of its income from exports of uranium ore, of which it is the world's third biggest producer after Canada and Australia.
Meanwhile, the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu yesterday justified the National Assembly resolution which elevated erstwhile Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, to Acting President, saying by doing so the parliament saved the country an imminent military coup reminiscent of what took place in Niger Republic.