* Coup leader makes first public appearance
* Tandja in detention but in "very good condition"
* AU suspends Niger's membership
(Adds U.S. State Department paragraph 17, French minister)
By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY, Feb 19 The leader of Niger's military
junta made his first public appearance on Friday, a day after
toppling President Mamadou Tandja in a coup, but made no mention
of any timetable to elections.
Troops who seized power and captured Tandja on Thursday in
the coup that left three dead set up what they called the
Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy.
But junta leader Salou Djibo promised only to begin
discussions soon with ministry officials on setting priorities.
"For the moment we are at a starting point, and we will
create a consultative body," Djibo told a news conference.
The coup in the West African uranium-producing nation, which
is facing severe food shortages this year due to a dive in grain
production, drew international condemnation.
In Addis Ababa, the African Union called for the people of
Niger to be allowed to elect the leader they wanted.
"Niger is suspended from all activities of the AU. Meanwhile
we will continue with the process of helping them return to
constitutional order," said Mull Sebujja Katende, who chairs
the AU peace and security council.
But markets, banks and schools in Niger's capital opened as
usual on Friday with only a few soldiers on the streets and those
lightly armed, witnesses said.
OPPORTUNITY AFTER COUP?
The coup followed months of heightened tensions over
Tandja's constitutional reform in 2009 that extended his rule
and broadened his powers, and residents said the coup had
provided some hope for change.
"I hope the soldiers restore some order... clean up the
political environment," said taxi driver Moussa Issa. "We need
to start from scratch, without being compromised by the current
political class which has been discredited over the last 20
Tandja, who drew criticism and sanctions for his
constitutional reform that allowed him to stay in power beyond
the end of his second term which expired in December, was in
detention and in "very good condition", the junta said.
Most of the members of Tandja's cabinet were released by
Friday afternoon, according to military sources, though their
work was being done by their secretary generals.
Junta leader Djibo is an officer trained in Ivory Coast,
Morocco and China who has served in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Other leaders include Colonel Djibril Hamidou, a key player in
Niger's last coup in 1999 that paved the way for the vote that
brought Tandja to power.
Despite the international condemnation, diplomats and
analysts said the overthrow of Tandja could create an
opportunity to hold the elections that were postponed by his
unpopular constitutional reform.
"The junta will likely defer to international and domestic
pressure for a return to democracy, and organise elections in
the medium term," said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, Africa analyst
for Eurasia Group.
Senegal, mediator for West Africa's ECOWAS bloc which has
already condemned the ouster, sent its foreign minister to
discuss the situation with the junta leadership.
Former colonial power France joined the criticism. "France
advises all parties in Niger, including the armed forces, to
find a solution to the constitutional crisis via dialogue as
soon as possible," a French spokesman said.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley repeated U.S.
calls for the swift return of democracy to Niger, but stopped
short of labelling the situation there a coup.
"We're very closely monitoring the situation. I'm not sure
we're ready to make any kind of declarations yet," Crowley told
a news briefing.
Alain Joyandet, France's junior minister for cooperation of
France, in an interview with Le Parisian newspaper to be
published on Saturday, said, "I hope that free and transparent
elections can be organised within the next months."
Despite political turmoil over the past year, Niger has
attracted billions of dollars in investment from major
international companies, including French nuclear giant Areva
CEPFi.PA and the China National Petroleum Corp [CNPET.UL], who
are looking to tap into uranium and oil reserves, respectively.
For a TAKE-A-LOOK on Niger, click on [ID:nLDE61H2P6]
(Additional reporting by Tamora Vidaillet in Paris; writing by
David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Michael Roddy)