Armed soldiers storm Niger presidential palace

Renegade soldiers in armored vehicles stormed Niger’s presidential palace with a hail of gunfire during broad daylight Thursday in an apparent coup attempt in the uranium-rich West African nation.

Military music played on state radio later in the evening ? the same music that aired after two previous coups in the late 1990s ? and the strongman president’s whereabouts was unknown. Government officials could not be reached for comment.

Smoke rose from the white-hued multistory palace complex and the echo of machine-gunfire for at least 20 minutes sent frightened residents running for cover, emptying the desert country’s downtown boulevards at midday.

Traore Amadou, a local journalist who was in the presidency when the shooting began, said President Mamadou Tandja was kidnapped by mutinous troops. It was unclear whether the septuagenarian leader was still at the palace.

Tandja first took power in democratic elections in 1999 that followed an era of coups and rebellions. But instead of stepping down as mandated by law on Dec. 22, he triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new constitution last August that removed term limits and gave him near-totalitarian powers.

Niger has become increasingly isolated since then, with the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states suspending Niger from its ranks and the U.S. government cutting off non-humanitarian aid and imposing travel restrictions on some government officials.

The ease with which Niger’s democratic institutions have been swept aside has marked a setback for a region struggling to shake off autocratic rulers. In Guinea, a military junta seized power in December 2008 after the death of the country’s longtime dictator, only to have the junta leader go into voluntary exile after he survived an assassination attempt a year later.

The nation’s latest troubles began suddenly in Niamey on Thursday afternoon, when gunfire broke out around the impoverished nation’s small presidency.

“Armored vehicles came into the palace and began shooting at the building,” said Moussa Mounkaila, a palace driver. He said the mutinous troops had come from a military barracks at Tondibia, about 7 miles (12 kilometers) west of the capital.

Mounkaila said he saw some smoke rising from the damaged presidency before he jumped over a wall and fled.

Tandja had just gathered government ministers for a Cabinet meeting when the gunfire erupted outside.

State radio stopped broadcasting for 15 minutes during the incident, but went on air again afterward and did not mention the developments in an afternoon report.

Soldiers blocked off streets around the presidency compound and nothing has been heard from Tandja since.

A French diplomat declined to comment on the situation, saying the French government is still trying to determine what is happening. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation is still unclear.

Niger has gained notoriety in recent years with a spate of kidnappings in its lawless northern deserts. A low-level rebellion finally calmed last year in the uranium-rich north, where al-Qaida’s North Africa branch has claimed responsibility for taking a handful of foreigners hostage, including a Canadian later freed who was the U.N.’s special envoy.

After three coups hit Niger between 1974 and 1999, Tandja twice won votes deemed fair. But in the waning months of his final term, critics say he went down the path of many long-serving African despots, breaking a promise he had frequently made to step down when his term expired in December.

Opposition leaders say Tandja morphed from democrat to dictator over the course of several months last year. In May 2009, he dissolved the national assembly because it opposed his plan to hold a referendum removing term limits. The move was legal but the following month he invoked extraordinary powers to rule by decree, dissolving the constitutional court that also opposed his plan.

The two bodies represented the only real checks on his power. The last obstacle was the constitution itself, which contained a clause saying that the two-term limit could not be amended. In August, Tandja forced through a referendum boycotted by the opposition that created a new constitution. It gave him greatly boosted powers and an unprecedented three-year extension of his rule before another round of elections can be held.

The Aug. 4 vote came despite opposition from international donors who could cut crucial aid and from critics at home who say the Islamic nation’s nascent democracy has been hijacked by a new African strongman.

Tandja claims he is only pushing to stay in power because his people have demanded it. He says they want him to finish several mammoth projects worth billions of dollars that have begun in recent months, including a hydroelectric dam, an oil refinery and what will be the largest uranium mine in Africa.

Niger is ranked fifth from last on the U.N.’s worldwide human development index and has an astounding 70 percent illiteracy rate. The nation on the Sahara’s southern edge has been perpetually battered by drought and desertification. And these days, it has the world’s highest population growth rate.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.