Niger opposition urges junta to hold elections

NIAMEY Sat Feb 20, 2010 12:31pm EST

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NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger's main opposition group thanked the army on Saturday for ousting President Mamadou Tandja in a coup and called for free elections.

The new military leadership has so far made no mention of returning the uranium-producing African country to civilian rule, despite strongly worded statements from Western powers and regional bodies.

"We say thank you to the junta for their intervention," opposition spokesman Bazoum Mohammed told a rally of more than 10,000 people in the capital Niamey. "We are for the restoration of democracy and we are committed to joining the army in this mission."

The opposition group CFDR sent a memorandum to junta leaders saying it was "prepared to make its contribution for the creation

of a new constitution and the organization of free, honest and transparent elections."

It called for a return to constitutional order, after changes introduced by Tandja in 2009 that extended his term and broadened his powers.

Tandja had defended the move as necessary for him to oversee the country's multi-billion-dollar minerals and oil development projects, but it drew widespread condemnation and international sanctions.

Heavily armed soldiers in armored vehicles stormed the presidential palace in a hail of bullets on Thursday, killing three people before detaining Tandja. The military has said he is being treated well and is in good health.

More than 10,000 people carrying signs saying "Long live democracy" and "The CFDR supports the army" gathered in the capital on Saturday morning as traditional Nigerien music blared from speakers.

Residents have said the coup has given them some cautious optimism for positive change in the mostly desert country that has been plagued by strongman leadership since independence from France in 1960.

A member of the junta, which calls itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (SCRD), later spoke at the rally, saying the coup was "in the interests of the country" but stopping short of mentioning elections.

PRESSURE MOUNTS

The international community has increased pressure on the new military leadership to eventually cede power.

The African Union on Friday called for the people of Niger to be allowed to elect the leader they wanted and suspended the country's membership. The United States offered to lift sanctions if the junta moved to establish civilian rule.

A delegation from West African bloc ECOWAS, which had already suspended Niger's membership under Tandja's rule, met junta leaders on Friday night and urged swift elections.

Junta president Major Salou Djibo, in his only public appearance so far, told reporters on Friday the military leadership was in the process of establishing its governing priorities, which are likely to include solving the country's food shortages and financial problems.

Despite political turmoil over the past year, Niger has attracted billions of dollars in investment from major international companies, including French nuclear giant Areva and the China National Petroleum Corp, looking to tap into uranium and oil reserves, respectively.

Analysts have said they do not expect the change in government to affect operating contracts.

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