Niger junta pledges new constitution

Niger junta pledges new constitution AFP – Nigerian soldiers stand guard outside the office of Salou Djibo, leader of the coup that overthrew Niger's …

NIAMEY (AFP) – The leaders of a coup that seized power in Niger promised Sunday a return to democracy and a new constitution, amid popular support for the overthrow of longtime strongman Mamadou Tandja.

The junta that ousted president Tandja and members of his government in Thursday's coup also pledged to fully involve political parties and civil society in talks to set up the new constitution, said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, head of the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS.

"We have discussed with the members of the junta how the country can get back to normalised constitutional life as quickly as possible," Chambas told AFP.

Chronology: Political crisis in Niger

"They have given us the necessary guarantees and all this will be done with the participation of civil society and the political parties," he said.

"Dialogue will be opened with all the vital forces of the nation which will end in the drawing up of a new constitution and a period of transition," added Chambas of the Economic Community of West African States.

Chambas was speaking after meeting the junta leadership with United Nations representative Said Djinnit and African Union commissioner for peace and security Ramtane Lamamra.

Following the talks, a junta leader told reporters Tandja was being held at the presidential palace in Niamey and that the Red Cross had been allowed access to him.

"Mr Tandja is in a service quarters of the presidency and is being kept in very good conditions," Colonel Djibrilla Hamidou Hima, one of the top military leaders told reporters.

Mamadou Tandja, ex-soldier who casts shadow over Niger

He said ex-prime minister and the former ministers of interior and finance, seized with the president during a cabinet meeting Thursday, "are still under surveillance for their security," the colonel said.

"Because they hold very sensitive portfolios, we are bound to ensure their security," he added.

Tandja's party has called for the immediate and unconditional release of the former leader and government officials still being held.

But the military rulers continue to whip up popular support among the impoverished country's 15 million people.

Thousands of people staged fresh demonstrations Sunday in support of Niger's new military junta in the latest outpouring of support from natives of this vast and arid west African country.

The demonstrators, including students and civil servants, took part in a "gigantic demonstration" in Niger's second city Zinder, official Voix du Sahel radio said.

They were "to salute the defence and security forces for the patriotic work which it has accomplished," the radio said.

Opposition parties which had rallied international condemnation of Tandja for unilaterally extending his presidential mandate last year had called for a massive show of support for the junta.

Supporters chanted "Long Live the Army" and other pro-junta slogans as they marched through the southern city.

A junta colonel greeted the marchers outside the headquarters of the local government.

Pro-junta demonstrations were held in the southern town of Dosso and Tahoua, in the west.

Around 10,000 people marched through the capital Niamey on Saturday to welcome the coup.

The UN, AU and ECOWAS have condemned the overthrow of Tandja, a strongman who had led the uranium-rich nation for more than a decade.

Niger's new military leaders have already promised to hold elections, although they have yet to fix a date.

"We plan to organise elections but first we have to stabilise the situation," Hima said.

Factfile: Niger

Speaking in Bamako, Hima said he had "explained" the reasons for the coup to west African leaders gathered in the Malian capital for a summit and they "understood us".

The AU has suspended Niger while the west African economic bloc kicked out Niger after Tandja changed the constitution to extend his grip on power.

Niger's new rulers, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), suspended the constitution that Tandja forced through in a contested August referendum. They also dissolved his government.

The United States called for a "speedy return to democracy," while former colonial ruler France demanded fresh elections within months.

Africa's coup-prone history