Military chiefs from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) arrived Wednesday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, for two days of meetings to discuss last week's coup in Niger. Meanwhile, the United States joined several European nations in evacuating their nationals.
ECOWAS said in a brief statement that the Committee of Chiefs of Defense Staff would discuss the "political situation in the Republic of Niger" in their meetings through Friday. ECOWAS has set a deadline of Sunday for President Mohamed Bazoum's return to power. Otherwise, it will consider the use of force.
"The military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality," said Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, according to Reuters.
"There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite," he told reporters on Wednesday in Abuja.
ECOWAS also sent a delegation on Wednesday to Niger's capital, Niamey, for talks with junta members.
ECOWAS also has imposed sanctions on Niger that include cutting energy transmissions to the impoverished country of 25 million people, which imports nearly all of its electricity. Neighboring Nigeria has since stopped sending electricity to Niger, but it is unclear how much of Niger's electricity that represents.
General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who declared himself the new head of state, said in a televised address that the junta "rejects these sanctions altogether and refuses to give into any threats, wherever they come from. We refuse any interference in the internal affairs of Niger."
US raises travel advisory
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said Wednesday it is ordering the "temporary departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and eligible family members from the U.S. Embassy in Niamey." It also raised its travel advisory to Level 4 - Do Not Travel - for Niger.
France's military and foreign ministry continued on Wednesday to evacuate people from Niger. The foreign ministry said about 1,000 people have left Niger on four flights and a fifth flight is under way. The evacuees include French nationals along with people from Niger, Portugal, Belgium, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Germany, Canada, India, Austria and the United States.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani shared a photo of an Italian air force plane that he said landed early Wednesday with Italians who left Niger. Spain also said it planned an evacuation flight for its nationals.
Military leaders put Bazoum under house arrest on July 26 and named Tchiani, commander of the presidential guard, as their new leader on Monday. Coup leaders said they were acting in response to what they described as a worsening security situation and the government's lack of action against jihadis.
The coup has been condemned by Western countries, including the U.S., which says it stands with Nigeriens, ECOWAS and the African Union as it continues to work to roll back the coup, U.S. officials say.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone Tuesday with Bazoum and expressed "unwavering support" for him and Niger's democracy, the State Department said.
In another call with African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, the State Department said Blinken and Mahamat reiterated calls for Bazoum's immediate release.
"This attempt of coup has no reason whatsoever, and it has to stop, it has to fade," said Mamadou Liman-Tinguiri, Niger's ambassador to the U.S. "But it will have consequences, if we let it go. Consequences are those that will come from the cutting of all influx of cash we are receiving from outside..."
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Washington is still assessing the situation and had yet to decide whether to pull its military assistance from Niger, a key counterterrorism ally in the region.
"Our hope, and what we are working on, is that the military will stand down and allow President Bazoum to resume his authority," Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters.
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern over the reported arrest of several members of Niger's government. Guterres' spokesman said the U.N. chief is urgently calling for the strict adherence to the country's international human rights obligations and the prompt restoration of constitutional order.
Spokesman Farhan Haq said the U.N. and its humanitarian partners are committed to remaining in Niger and continuing their work. More than 4 million people in the country require humanitarian assistance.
Burkina Faso and Mali, two of Niger's neighbors operating under military governments, issued a joint statement Monday saying any military action against Niger would be considered "a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali."
Guinea, another neighboring junta-led country, expressed its opposition to the ECOWAS sanctions and the possibility of military intervention.
Guterres' West Africa envoy, Leonardo Santos Simao said the priority is to find a peaceful solution to the situation.
He also raised concerns that if the situation is not reversed, terrorism, which is rampant in the Sahel region, could spread further.
Margaret Besheer reported from the United Nations. Abdourahmane Dia of VOA's French to Africa service contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.