A delegation of religious leaders from Nigeria arrived Saturday in Niger and met with members of the military junta who took control of the country last month.
Coup leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani and junta-appointed Prime Minister Ali Maham Lamine Zeine both met with the delegation of Muslim religious leaders led by Sheikh Abdullahi Bala Lau, leader of the Izala Salafist movement in Nigeria, according to Nigerien media.
Nigerian President Bola Tinubu gave his approval to the mediation delegation. Tinubu currently serves as the president of the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), which has threatened to intervene militarily if the leaders of the military coup in Niger do not reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum, 63, who was deposed by members of his guard on July 26.
The clerical delegation hopes to ease tensions between Nigeria and the junta leaders, a source close to the delegation told AFP.
"The clerics are in Niamey to explain to the junta leaders that Nigeria is not fighting Niger and that the decisions taken on Niger are not Nigeria's but those of ECOWAS as a regional bloc," the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
ECOWAS has approved the deployment of a "standby force to restore constitutional order" in Niger, but still hopes to find a peaceful resolution to the situation. The ECOWAS parliament met Saturday to discuss further action, but no decision was made.
A crisis meeting set for Saturday was called off for technical reasons, the chiefs of staff of ECOWAS said. The meeting was to discuss the best options for deploying the standby force.
"The military option seriously envisaged by ECOWAS is not a war against Niger and its people but a police operation against hostage takers and their accomplices," Hassoumi Massaoudou, foreign minister in the ousted civilian government, said Saturday.
Coup leaders defiant
So far, the coup leaders remain defiant and refuse to restore constitutional order in Niger.
The threat of a military intervention has proved divisive among the 15-member ECOWAS bloc, but it remains determined to restore Bazoum to his elected position while other African nations fear sparking a conflict with an unpredictable outcome.
Niger, an impoverished country of about 25 million people, was seen as one of the last hopes for Western nations to partner with in quelling a jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that's ravaged the region.
France and the United States together have more than 2,500 military personnel in Niger and with other European partners had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into propping up its military.
The junta responsible for spearheading the coup, led by Tchiani, has maintained it could be more effective at protecting the nation from jihadi violence and has exploited anti-French sentiment among the population to shore up its support.
Nigeriens in the capital of Niamey said on Friday that ECOWAS has been out of touch with the political realities in Niger and that it shouldn't interfere.
"It is our business, not theirs. They don't even know the reason why the coup happened in Niger," said Achirou Harouna Albassi, a resident. Bazoum was not abiding by the will of the people, he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. appreciated "the determination of ECOWAS to explore all options for the peaceful resolution of the crisis" and would hold the junta accountable for the safety and security of Bazoum. However, he did not specify whether the U.S. supported the deployment of troops.
Western powers fear Russian influence increasing if Niger follows neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which expelled troops of former colonial power France after coups in those countries.
Mali has since teamed up with mercenaries from the Russian-led Wagner Group and kicked out a United Nations peacekeeping force there, something security analysts say could lead to further conflict.
In Niamey, thousands demonstrated Friday outside a French military base.
"Long live Russia," one protester's sign read. "Down with France ... Down with ECOWAS." Another said: "Wagner will protect our children from terrorism."
Doctor visits Bazoum
Meanwhile, Niger's military junta remains in power, appears closed to dialogue, and refuses to release the constitutionally elected president.
Bazoum, who had complained recently of the treatment he, his wife and son were receiving and the conditions they were held in, was seen by a doctor Saturday.
Bazoum "had a visit by his doctor today," a member of the doctor's team told AFP, adding the physician had also brought food for Bazoum, his wife, and son.
"He's fine, given the situation," the source added.
Representatives of the junta told U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland during her visit to the country this week that they would kill Bazoum if ECOWAS intervened militarily, a Western military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The threat to kill Bazoum is grim," said Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. There have been unwritten rules until now about how overthrown presidents will be treated and violence against Bazoum would evoke some of the worst coups of the past, he said.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that it had spoken to Bazoum, who said that his 20-year-old son was sick with a serious heart condition and has been refused access to a doctor. The president said he hasn't had electricity for nearly 10 days and isn't allowed to see family, friends or bring food supplies into the house.
Blinken said he was "dismayed" by the military's refusal to release Bazoum's family as a "demonstration of goodwill."
Some information in this report came from Reuters, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse.