PARIS (Reuters) - Niger’s foreign minister said on Thursday that France should not interfere in its relations with Libya, after Paris said it had been asked by Libya’s new government to secure the return of Gaddafi loyalists who fled to Niger.
Three convoys containing important members of Gaddafi’s entourage have arrived in Niger in the past seven days, including Gaddafi’s son Saadi, Gaddafi’s security chief and at least two top generals, all of whom are now in the capital.
Speaking during a lightning visit to Tripoli on Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Libya’s interim leader had asked Paris to intervene with Niger’s authorities to ensure their return. Sarkozy said diplomatic contacts would take place on Friday.
“France is a close ally ... but on questions linked to Libya we would rather requests came from Libya and not France. That’s clear,” Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“We are uncomfortable by the National Transitional Council (NTC) asking France to request things from Niger when it would have been a lot easier to do it themselves,” Bazoum said, speaking from Niger’s capital Niamey.
“We have recognized the NTC. If we hadn’t then we would have understood why they would go through France.”
Niger has good relations with France, its former colonial ruler, and the current administration was closely supported by Paris earlier this year as the country made its transition to a democracy.
Bazoum said no request had been made so far for the estimated 32 Libyans in Niger, but were one to be made it would be studied carefully.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has issued a warrant for the former Libyan leader and his son Saif al-Islam, but not for Saadi who is chiefly known abroad for his obsession with soccer. None of the other pro-Gaddafi officials on its soil are wanted for crimes.
But Niamey has pledged to respect commitments to the ICC if Gaddafi himself shows up.
“We have told all the Libyans that have come here and who we have disarmed that they will have to stay in Niger and that they respect the demands of our neighborly relations with Libya,” Bazoum said, adding that while the officials were not under house arrest they were under “extremely tight controls.”
Niger has cited humanitarian grounds to grant them refuge, at an undisclosed location believed to be in Niamey’s plush villa district.
“They are a type of political refugee and I will study whether we eventually give that status,” Bazoum said. “In the meantime, they are banned from doing any politics, activism and to take part in the conflict that is taking place in the country. They can’t be here to carry on the war.”
Editing by Andrew Heavens