Niger military sack govt after toppling president

NIAMEY: Niger's new military junta announced Friday it had dissolved the government after a coup that toppled President Mamadou Tandja in the impoverished but uranium-rich west African country.

The Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) announced that its head would be squadron leader Salou Djibo, whose heavily armed unit played a key role in Thursday's coup.

"The government is dissolved," said a statement signed by Djibo and read by an unnamed military officer on state television.

"The CSRD informs the population that public business will be run by secretaries of ministries and local government administrators."

Soldiers in Niger ousted Tandja amid gunbattles that killed at least three troops Thursday.

"On this day February 18, we the defense and security forces, decided to take our responsibilities in ending the tense political situation," said CSRD spokesman colonel Goukoye Abdoulkarim.

Commander of Niger's elite military unit and former member of the junta behind the 1999 coup, colonel Dijibrilla Hima Hamidou popularly known as "Pele" flanked the spokesman who announced the take over.

Abdoulaye Adamou Harouna, a former aide-de-camp of the 1999 coup leader commander Daouda Mallam Wanke, also stood next to Abdoulkarim.

The CSRD said it "has decided to suspend the constitution of the Sixth Republic and dissolve all its institutions".

Tandja had defied outcry both inside the country and abroad at his move to change the constitution to allow himself to extend his grip on power. Related article: Mamadou Tandja, ex-soldier who casts shadow over Niger

Gunfire and loud explosions sounded across the capital Niamey as soldiers assaulted the presidential palace where Tandja, the country's strongman for the past decade, presided over a cabinet meeting.

The new military council declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and announced the closure of all border entry points.

A French diplomat said Tandja's own had guard taken part in the coup. Factfile: Niger

And one senior US official suggested that Tandja only had himself to blame.

"President Tandja has been trying to extend his mandate in office. And obviously, that may well have been, you know, an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

Tandja was reportedly detained at a separate location from his ministers were also held elsewhere. Chronology: Political crisis in Niger

"It is our country and no one wants to set it ablaze," said one cabinet minister contacted by mobile telephone from Niamey and speaking on condition of anonymity.

Djibo's junta called on the people of Niger -- ranked last at 182 on the UN Human Development Index for 2009 -- to say calm and united around its ideals of "restoring democracy and good governance".

An African diplomat based in Niger -- a landlocked West African nation that is the world's third-biggest uranium producer -- confirmed Tandja's capture.

An official told AFP that Tandja was believed to be held in a military barrack on the outskirts of the capital.

State radio suspended its regular programmes and played martial music.

Ex-colonel Tandja, 71, extended his term through a controversial referendum last August after dissolving parliament and the constitutional court, leading to the west African nation's international isolation.

Witnesses said they had seen the bodies of at least three soldiers being lifted out of a badly damaged armoured vehicle that pulled up outside the morgue of the main hospital.

At least 10 soldiers were injured, a medical source said.

France, the colonial power in Niger until independence in August 1960, urged its nationals to stay indoors. French nuclear giant Areva is the country's biggest private employer.

The city was largely calm as the population fled into their homes and soldiers deployed across the city.

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," the AU's security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said in Addis Ababa.

The 15-nation west African grouping ECOWAS, which had been mediating talks to resolve Niger's political crisis, condemned the coup bid saying it "rejects any change of power through unconstitutional means and violence".

After dissolving parliament, Tandja forced parliamentary elections in October, which led ECOWAS to suspend Niger's membership. The European Union suspended development aid and the United States applied sanctions.

One French diplomatic source in Paris said: "We knew that a part of the army disapproved of Tandja and his constitutional coup."

But they had thought that this group was a minority, the source added.

"There is a tradition of coups d'etat in this country, but we didn't think it would come so fast."