Army mutineers free civilian hostages

Army mutineers in two garrisons in eastern Niger freed the prefect of Diffa region and other civilian hostages on Thursday evening, but retained some officers of the security forces. They also said they were prepared to respond to any attack by loyalist forces.

Heavily armed reinforcements were sent to the town of Diffa, located some 1,500 km east of Niger's capital, Niamey, to restore order in the garrisons of Diffa and N'Gourti. However, the mutineers said they would continue to push their demands for better living conditions and payment of allocations due to them.

"If they want to negotiate, we'll negotiate, but as they said they wanted to use force to free the hostages, let them come," a spokesman for the mutineers said on an international radio station. "We're ready to receive them. We have weapons of war, we've received military training, we have combat experience".

Residents of Diffa were worried about the prospect of a violent clash between mutineers and loyalists. "If they intervene against the company in the town, there will be carnage and the population could pay a heavy price," one resident said. "If the mutineers take to the bush, that would be better. They would meet there, shoot at each other and everyone will be fine."

Another inhabitant of the town said "the best way to cool things down is to arrange negotiations as quickly as possible on the grievances of the soldiers".

The mutiny began on Wednesday, when the soldiers took over their barracks and detained various defence, security and civilian officials, including the prefect, a parliamentarian from the region and Diffa town's mayor.

Niger's government decreed a state of emergency in the region on Wednesday evening. On Thursday, gendarmes in Niamey arrested three army officers who had been close to late president Ibrahima Bare Mainassare, assassinated in 1999, and whom the government suspected of being in league with the mutineers.

The government said the mutiny had become a rebellion against the state. It also said the mutineers had called for the dismissal of the chief of general staff of Niger's armed forces, Col Moumouni Boureima, and demanded that Prime Minister Hama Amadou travel to Diffa. However, the mutineers denied having anything to do with the officers arrested in Niamey and said they had never called for Boureima's dismissal.

The first reaction from civil society came on Thursday afternoon when the country's main labour federation, l’Union syndicale des travailleurs du Niger (USTN), issued a communique urging the government to create conditions for calm to return to the region.

USTN's executive bureau said it condemned the mutiny and hostage-taking in Diffa and denounced anything that "called into question the republican order of the democratic process and territorial integrity".