UN, AU envoys head to Niger for talks with junta

NIAMEY: UN and African Union envoys were expected in Niger Sunday, a day after thousands of people demonstrated in support of the military coup that ousted the country's president.

Another pro-junta rally was also planned.

Officials from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would assess the situation on the ground, according to Said Djinnit, the UN secretary-general's representative in West Africa.

Chronology: Political crisis in Niger "They will make contact with the military authorities, the political community, to see the evolution of the situation and see how they can support efforts for a return to constitutional order within the shortest possible time," he told AFP.

Niger's new military leaders have already promised to hold elections in the uranium-rich west African nation, although they have yet to fix a date.

"Our intention is to stabilise the political situation... We plan to organise elections but first we have to stabilise the situation," a junta leader, Colonel Djibrilla Hamidou Hima, told journalists in Mali.

Speaking in Bamako, Hima said he had "explained" the reasons for the coup to west African leaders gathered in the Malian capital for a summit.

Related article: Mamadou Tandja, ex-soldier who casts shadow over Niger "They have understood us," he added.

Both Niger's opposition and the international community have called for quick elections and a return to civilian rule.

But while the international community condemned Thursday's coup, which ousted Mamadou Tandja as president, Niger's opposition called thousands of people out on to the streets Saturday in a show of support for the junta.

Supporters crammed into buses and cars, took lifts on motorbikes or simply walked to gather in front of parliament for a demonstration called by the opposition alliance, the Coordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic.

"We urge the soldiers to be fair and organise free and democratic elections and then withdraw," Doudou Rahama, an aide to the head of the dissolved parliament, told the 10,000-strong crowd.

Captain Harouna Djibrilla Adamou, a junta leader, vowed never to let the people down.

"What we did was in the best interest of Niger... We ask you to stay calm, we're here for you, we're listening and we assure you that we will never let you down," he told the rally.

The alliance behind Saturday's rally brings together opposition parties, human rights organisations and trade unions that had fiercely opposed Tandja's refusal to step down after his mandate expired in December.

Pro-junta rallies took place elsewhere in the country and another was planned for the second largest city of Zinder on Sunday.

The 15-nation ECOWAS has already held talks with junta leader major Salou Djibola.

"We want a transition... to be driven by credible, transparent elections open to all," the bloc's outgoing president Mohammed Ibn Chambas said after the talks late Friday.

Factfile: Niger Soldiers stormed the presidential palace on Thursday as the 71-year-old Tandja chaired a cabinet meeting. They seized the president, took him to a military camp and detained his ministers.

Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi sent an envoy Saturday asking for guarantees that Tandja and his family would not be harmed.

Niger's new rulers, who call themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), have suspended the constitution that Tandja forced through in a contested August referendum.

They have also dissolved his government.

Tandja had changed the constitution last year to hold on to his post beyond a 10-year-limit, tightening his grip on power in a move that infuriated democratic forces and widened the chasm between himself and the opposition.

The coup has been widely condemned abroad, including by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the African Union and the European Union.

The United States called for a "speedy return to democracy," while former colonial ruler France demanded fresh elections "in the coming months."

Related article: Africa's coup-prone history Libya has also offered help for a "speedy" return to democracy.