* 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 (Reuters) - 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.
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 years.”
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)