Niger's military-appointed prime minister has said he sees hopes of a deal with the Economic Communuity of West African States (Ecowas) - that threatened to use force to restore civilian rule after a coup in July - with "exchanges" reportedly also underway between French forces in Niamey and the Nigerien military.
Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine told a press conference in Niamey on Monday that he had hope that a deal would be reached "in the coming days" with Ecowas, adding that "contacts" were underway over a "very swift" pull-out of French forces from Niger after relations with Paris collapsed following the military takeover.
Earlier this Tuesday, sources close to French Defence Minister, Sébastien Lecornu, confirmed to French news agency AFP that exchanges are underway between the Niger and French armies to "facilitate the movement of French military resources" present in Niger.
However no specifics on the nature of these "movements", their scale or their destination has been given, and there has been no mention of a withdrawal.
This comes as Ecowas has imposed hefty sanctions against Niger after rebel soldiers overthrew Mohamed Bazoum, the country's democratically-elected president, on 26 July.
It has also given several warnings of intervening militarily to reinstate Bazoum should diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis fail.
"We are bracing to be attacked at any time. Every preparation has been taken. It would be an unjust war. We are determined to defend ourselves if there is an attack," Zeine told reporters.
Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, Niger's military-appointed prime minister, said at a news conference on Monday that he's hopeful of an agreement with the west African bloc #ECOWAS to end a stalemate. He added that contacts were underway over the pullout of French forces from #Niger. pic.twitter.com/UIHtoben8h-- CGTN Global Watch (@GlobalWatchCGTN) September 5, 2023
One key question in the crisis is a timeline for the return to civilian rule.
Nigerian President Bola Tinubu - who is the current chairman of Ecowas - has suggested a nine-month transition period such as his country underwent in the late 1990s.
"The president sees no reason why such [a timeline] cannot be replicated in Niger, if Niger's military authorities are sincere," the Nigerian presidency said in a statement.
Algeria, Niger's influential northern neighbour, has proposed a six-month period for the transition.
So far, the military rulers in Niamey have not responded to the suggestions, having previously spoken of a three-year hand-back period.
Ecowas has taken a hard line with regard to Niger following a cascade of coups in its region since 2020 - military juntas have taken power in Mali and Burkina Faso, where like Niger, losses among the armed forces are surging in the face of a long-running jihadist insurgency.
A putsch also took place in Guinea in 2021 after the country's octogenarian president, Alpha Condé, ran for a third term in office, a move that opponents said breached constitutional limits.
Former colonial rulers
In other comments, Zeine said, without elaborating, that "contacts" were indeed underway that should enable a swift withdrawal of French forces from Nigerien territory.
He said, however, that Niger wished "to maintain cooperation with a country with which we have shared an enormous number of things."
Tensions between Niger and its former colonial power and ally in the fight against jihadists ratcheted up after France stood by the ousted Bazoum.
Despite recent signs of communication channels opening up between the two countries, Paris has refused to acknowledge the coup leaders as the legitimate government and ignored Niamey's announcement it was cancelling military agreements with France along with a threat to expel the French ambassador.
France has around 1,500 troops in the Sahel state, many of them deployed at an air base near the capital Niamey.
This comes as tens of thousands of protestors rallied outside the French base at the weekend to demand they leave, responding to a call by a pro-coup civilian coalition.
Air space reopens
Meanwhile, Niger reopened its air space on Monday after imposing a flight ban on 6 August in response to the Ecowas threat of military intervention.
Some flights to Niamey were, however, permitted during this time, with special authorisations.
Air France has said it would resume flights over Nigerien territory from Tuesday morning, although its air services to and from Niamey would remain suspended until further notice.
Separately, the Chinese ambassador to Niger said that Beijing hoped to play a "mediating role" in the political crisis, in comments broadcast on Nigerien television.
China is a major economic partner for Niger, particularly in the energy sector, including building the longest oil pipeline in Africa.