The military junta that seized power in Niger last month said over the weekend that it would prosecute the deposed president for treason, even as an intermediary said coup leaders were open to talks with West African counties that had threatened to intervene militarily, the first sign of a thaw after nearly three weeks of rising tensions.
Since mutinous soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger on July 26, they have kept him isolated in his private residence in Niamey, the capital, with his wife and one of their sons; dissolved his government; and, according to U.S. officials, vowed to kill him if West African countries intervened militarily.
On Sunday, the junta member acting as a spokesman, Col. Amadou Abdramane, said that Mr. Bazoum would face charges of “high treason” and “undermining the internal and external security of Niger” after the democratically elected president spoke with foreign leaders and international organizations while in detention.
The coup in Niger last month set off one of the most severe political crises in recent years in West Africa, following a series of military takeovers in a region already troubled by Islamist insurgencies, some of the world’s most extreme effects of climate change and widespread poverty.
It has also raised questions about the future of Western assistance in Niger, which under Mr. Bazoum was a security ally of countries like the United States and a favored recipient of funds from European countries hoping to stem migration to their continent. More than 2,500 Western troops, including about 1,100 Americans, are posted in Niger to train the country’s military and help track extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
A West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, has said it would activate a “standby force” to intervene against Niger’s coup leaders if Mr. Bazoum is not released and reinstated.
But experts doubt that the West African countries, already struggling with domestic insecurity and underequipped militaries, could mount a successful operation against a Nigerien military that has received years of Western training. They also warn that a regional conflict could have devastating consequences in an area where extremist groups have extended their grip in recent years.
President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, the current chairman of the West African bloc, has said that force would be used as a last resort. On Sunday, Niger’s coup leaders said they were open to dialogue with the bloc, according to a religious figure from Nigeria who was received by the junta leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, as part of mediation talks.
In a sign that the events in Niger could have consequences beyond West Africa, the African Union met on Monday to discuss the crisis.
“The African Union is against the use of the standby force for this case, but there will be no public spat” with West Africa’s bloc, said Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, a former African Union official and a current head of faculty at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, based in Ghana.
“Undermining it so publicly will destroy the organization,” he said of the West African bloc.
The West African bloc and the U.S. State Department on Monday condemned the junta’s plan to prosecute Mr. Bazoum.
From his private residence, Mr. Bazoum has remained in contact with foreign officials including the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, as well as some members of his government. Mr. Bazoum has called on the United States to help restore constitutional order in Niger, writing in an opinion essay published earlier this month in The Washington Post that the military junta was holding him hostage.
Mr. Bazoum also told Human Rights Watch last week that he was without electricity and fresh food, and that those detaining him had refused to let his son, who he said has a heart condition, get medical treatment.
On Sunday, Colonel Abdramane, the junta’s spokesman, said the new government had gathered enough evidence to prosecute Mr. Bazoum based on his communications with foreign heads of state and international organizations.
He gave no details on the allegations, nor a date for a trial. Under Niger’s penal code, treason is punishable by death.
Colonel Abdramane also said that a doctor had visited Mr. Bazoum and his family on Saturday and had not raised alarms about the family’s health, a claim that could not be independently verified.
On Sunday, thousands of junta supporters thronged the country’s largest stadium for the second weekend in a row, as a popular pro-military singer gave a concert in tribute to the country’s new leaders.
Praising the new general in power, the crowds sang “Say Tchiani,” or “We need Tchiani” in Hausa, one of the main languages spoken in Niger. The tune was once a signature of Mr. Bazoum’s supporters, who chanted “Say Bazoum” during his successful 2020 presidential bid.
There was no mention of the democratically elected president in the stadium’s stands.
Omar Hama Saley contributed reporting from Niamey, Niger, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.