DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Lawyers for Niger’s ousted president called for his immediate release Friday, a day after the ruling military junta said it had thwarted an overnight attempt by the president to escape house arrest with his family nearly three months after he was detained in the wake of a coup.
Mohamed Bazoum, his wife and son are being held without access to lawyers or the outside world, said an international group of lawyers representing Bazoum said in a statement. They denied the junta’s accusations that he tried to flee.
The president and his family have been under house arrest since the end of July when mutinous soldiers toppled him and has refused to resign. The junta had cut off his electricity and water.
Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane said late Thursday in a statement that Bazoum tried to reach a waiting vehicle at around 3 a.m. that was to take him to the outskirts of the capital, Niamey, along with his family, two cooks and his security personnel.
From there, they were to be flown to Nigeria aboard “two helicopters belonging to a foreign power,” Abdramane said.
“This plan to destabilize our country was thwarted,” Abdramane said, adding that the main perpetrators had been arrested and an investigation has already been opened by the public prosecutor.
Bazoum has only been seen a few times since being detained but had maintained communication with people in his close circle. Two people with direct ties to Bazoum, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said he hadn’t been heard from since Wednesday evening.
On Friday, Bazoum’s lawyers said a doctor was denied access while trying to bring food to the family.
“Not only must the military authorities provide us with proof that President Bazoum and his family are alive, but above all they must release them immediately,” said Reed Brody, one of the lawyers. “It is absurd to accuse someone of escaping,” he said.
While Bazoum and his family’s whereabouts are still unclear, Niger experts say it’s not very plausible he tried to escape.
“Given how well guarded Bazoum and his family are and the security around the presidential palace, it is difficult to imagine an escape in any scenario, least of all one involving helicopters planning to land on the outskirts of Niamey, as the (junta) alleged in their communique,” said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute. However, this happens in a context of growing social and political tensions and the transition is seemingly stalled across a number of fronts, he said.
The United States has formally declared that the ousting of Bazoum was a coup, suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid as well as military assistance and training.
Niger was seen by many in the West as the last country in Africa’s Sahel region — the vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert — that could be partnered with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
In the wake of the July coup, however, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France was ending its military presence and would pull its ambassador out of the country. French troops already have been ousted by military governments in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, which are both seeing a surge in attacks.
Krista Larson contributed to this report.