Heavy gunfire was heard near Niger’s presidency in the capital, Niamey, in the early hours of Wednesday, prompting fears of a coup attempt and further instability just two days before President-elect Mohamed Bazoum is due to be sworn into office.
Heavy gunfire started around 3am local time (02:00 GMT) and lasted for about 30 minutes, Reuters news agency reported.
Online newspaper actuniger.com reported that calm had returned by around 4am. In short video clips posted on social networks, only several seconds in length, sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard in the darkness. It was not possible to independently verify the location and timing of the videos.
The government of Niger was not immediately available for comment.
The US Embassy in Niamey put out a security alert saying it would be closed on Wednesday “due to gunshots heard near our neighbourhood.”
“All personnel are encouraged to stay home until further notice,” it said.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris reporting from Abuja in neighbouring Nigeria said the situation was now calm in Niamey.
“Questions are being asked as to whether the attack was by armed groups or was it a military coup,” Idris said.
“A lot of people in Niger believe it was an attempted coup that has been put down. The national television and radio stations are broadcasting their normal programmes without any interruption,” the Al Jazeera correspondent said.
A source who spoke to AFP news agency said security forces detained several people in connection with the incident.
“There were some arrests among a few members of the army who are behind this attempted coup,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The Presidential Guard retaliated, preventing this group of soldiers from approaching the presidential palace,” the source added.
There have been growing attacks by armed groups and political tensions in the country following Bazoum’s victory in a February presidential election runoff. Former President Mahamane Ousmane, who lost in the runoff, has rejected the results, alleging fraud.
Ousmane had called for “peaceful marches” across the country, but a planned opposition protest on Wednesday in the capital was banned a day earlier by authorities.
Last week, Niger’s top court confirmed Bazoum’s victory in the presidential runoff, allowing the ruling party candidate to be sworn into office on April 2. Bazoum’s inauguration on Friday will mark the West African country’s first transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another.
Bazoum, a former interior minister, was the preferred successor and right-hand man of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou, who stepped down after two five-year terms.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, has suffered numerous coups in its history, most recently a February 2010 putsch which toppled then-President Mamadou Tandja.
Just over a week ago, gunmen on motorcycles attacked a series of villages located near the border with Mali, leaving at least 137 people dead in the deadliest violence to strike Niger in recent memory.
Those attacks came on the same day that the constitutional court certified Bazoum’s electoral victory.
In January, at least 100 people were killed in villages, the same day that Niger announced the presidential election would go to a second round on February 21.
Niger’s armed forces – who number 25,000 – are poorly equipped and trained. The plan is to double this to 50,000 men within five years, but funding is key. Last year, violent protests broke out over a military procurement scandal officially estimated to have cost nearly $55m.
On March 8, Issoufou, the outgoing president, was awarded the coveted Ibrahim Prize – Africa’s top prize for leadership.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES