Niamey: Renegade soldiers in armoured vehicles stormed Niger`s presidential palace with a hail of gunfire in broad daylight, kidnapping the country`s strongman President and then appearing on state television to declare they staged a successful coup.
The soldiers also said on Thursday on state TV that the country`s Constitution had been suspended and all its institutions dissolved. The spokesman for the soldiers said the country is now being led by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and asked their countrymen and the international community to have faith in their ideals which "could turn Niger into an example of democracy and of good governance”.
Smoke rose from the white-hued multi-storey palace complex and the echo of machine-gunfire for at least two hours sent frightened residents running for cover, emptying the desert country`s downtown boulevards at midday.
Traore Amadou, a local journalist who was in the presidency when the shooting began, said President Mamadou Tandja was kidnapped by mutinous troops.
French radio station Radio France Internationale reported that the soldiers burst in and neutralised the presidential guard before politely escorting Tandja outside to a waiting car which drove him toward a military camp on the outskirts of the capital. His whereabouts remained unknown hours later when the soldiers took to the airwaves to announce the coup.
Tandja first took power in democratic elections in 1999 that followed an era of coups and rebellions. But instead of stepping down as mandated by law on December 22, he triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new Constitution in August that removed term limits and gave him near-totalitarian powers.
Niger has become increasingly isolated since then, with the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states suspending Niger from its ranks and the US government cutting off non-humanitarian aid and imposing travel restrictions on some government officials.
The ease with which Niger`s democratic institutions have been swept aside has marked a setback for a region struggling to shake off autocratic rulers. In Guinea, a military junta seized power in December 2008 after the death of the country`s longtime dictator, only to have the junta leader go into voluntary exile after he survived an assassination attempt a year later.