Soldiers in control of Niger

NIAMEY: Niger’s new military rulers posted tanks and trucks mounted with machine

guns around the presidential palace day after toppling strongman Mamadou Tandja and sacking the government in a deadly coup.

The junta swung into action shortly after it took control on Thursday with a call for the backing of the 15 million population, promising to turn Niger into an beacon of “good democracy and governance” after months of political turmoil. The military stormed

the palace during a cabinet meeting, and seized Tandja and detained his ministers before announcing it was suspending the constitution that the 71-year-old forced through with a controversial referendum last year. Calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), the junta said the government of the impoverished but uranium-rich west African country was dissolved.

African Union chief Jean Ping condemned the coup and and said there should be “zero tolerance” for taking power by force. West Africa has been blighted by a string of recent coups, including takeovers by the military in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania. Two armoured tanks and several trucks mounted

with machineguns were stationed around the presidential palace on Friday.

Several pick-up vehicles mounted with machine guns were also stationed outside the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry. The junta did not say where Tandja was but government sources said he was being held at military barracks on the outskirts of the capital. Government ministers were also detained during the coup in a complex where the cabinet meeting took place.

At least three soldiers were killed during the fierce gunbattles that accomapanied the coup. A watch tower at the palace in downtown Niamey was hit by a rocket while

a gate was also damaged during the fighting. However, after a nightime curfew, the capital city appeared calm today with people going about their business as normal.

Within hours of storming the presidential palace during a cabinet meeting chaired by Tandja, a group of military top brass announced it had suspended the constitution Tandja foisted on the country in a referendum last August.

Tandja had defied outcry both inside the country and abroad at his move to change the constitution to allow himself to remain in office.

Junta head squadron leader Salou Djibo, whose heavily-armed unit played a key role in Thursday’s coup, said in a statement read on state television the government was dissolved. “The defence and security forces have decided to take our responsibilities in ending the tense political situation,” said the statement.

The junta also 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”.