NIAMEY Niger has arrested some 40 armed opposition supporters on suspicion of attempting to destabilize the West African nation in order to incite the army to stage a coup, the country's interior minister said.
Political tensions have risen in Niger since August after a reshaping of President Mahamadou Issoufou's ruling coalition that saw National Assembly leader Hama Amadou and his Nigerien Democratic Movement (Moden) party enter the opposition.
The arrests came after unidentified gunmen on a motorbike, machinegunned the home of Mohamed Ben Omar, a vice president of Niger's parliament and member of the ruling coalition on May 20.
"All those arrested have links with a premeditated attempt to create a campaign of terror which to them would lead to a military coup," Hassoumi Massaoudou said during a news conference on Saturday, adding 40 party members were detained.
"The opposition party members were caught red-handed notably with Molotov cocktails, machetes and clubs in their possession," he said. "These successive attacks are part of a campaign that has been launched."
There was no immediate comment from Moden, but it has previously denied trying to destabilize the country and accuses the government of trying to silence critics.
Issoufou was elected in 2011, returning the country to civilian rule after a military coup the previous year. However, he angered former allies and opposition figures by naming a national unity government in August without consultation.
Hama, the National Assembly president whose Moden party broke away from the ruling coalition, has helped found a new opposition coalition and is regarded as the main challenger to Issoufou for the 2016 presidential election.
Niger, with a fast-growing population of 17 million people, is one of the world's poorest countries. It has some of the lowest government revenues per capita in Africa despite being a uranium producer and also started oil production in 2011.
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki; Writing by Bate Felix)