Death of convoy protesters strain France-Niger relations

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The deaths of three people protesting against a French military convoy in Niger last month sparked anger in the African country facing continued militant violence amid a gradual withdrawal of French troops.

Dozens of vehicles left Côte d’Ivoire to supply a base in Mali used for France’s anti-militant operations in the region.

But the convoy sparked protests as it first crossed Burkina Faso and then western Niger.

In the town of Tera, shots were fired on November 27 to disperse crowds, and three people died.

President Mohamed Bazoum last week called on France to investigate the deaths after Niger launched its own investigation.

But Paris’ response has left many Nigeriens furious.

Defense Minister Florence Parly said that an internal investigation had already been carried out and “showed that in the face of great violence, our soldiers showed the necessary control and responded adequately”.

Nigerien newspaper L’Eclosion said its response revealed “the low consideration of the French authorities for the three people who were believed to have been killed by bullets from their army.”

Souley Oumarou, of a campaign group called Forum for Responsible Citizenship, said Parly’s response had “thrown gasoline on the flames.”

“There is an effort to hide the truth and a pathetic narrative that seeks to relieve France of its responsibilities,” he said, calling for an independent investigation.

“Firearms should not be used against protesters who have only bare hands or who use stones as weapons.”

Angry crowd

The French army maintains that it did nothing wrong.

After forcing the convoy to stop through a series of roadblocks, the crowd attempted to set fire to trucks containing ammunition and threw stones with slingshots, and two drivers sustained head injuries, according to his version of the facts.

A video of the French army seen by Agence France-Presse (AFP) shows the convoy surrounded by a very hostile crowd, some of whom are armed with sticks.

Captain François-Xavier, a soldier from the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment who led the convoy, was questioned by AFP on condition that only his first name was used.

He painted a portrait of soldiers who acted responsibly in the face of an imminent threat.

The soldiers used non-lethal ammunition until it was almost exhausted, then fired warning shots into the air and into the ground as a last resort, he said.

He said he had no information on how the victims happened.

“Did people get trampled by others in the crowd, did the bullets ricochet? I have no idea. No one aimed at the crowd – the order at no time. to aim was not given, “he insisted.

“Less security than ever”

French forces first intervened in the militant emergency in the Sahel in 2013 and formalized the effort a year later with Operation Barkhane, ultimately deploying some 5,100 soldiers, warplanes and drones.

But after a coup in Mali, France this year announced plans to reduce its troop numbers, which sparked allegations from Malian leaders that the country was being abandoned.

The Niger episode only added to France’s woes.

“France arrived in 2013 with promises and ambitions to restore security and win the war on terrorism,” said Rinaldo Depagne, analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

“But today there is even less security than ever.”

He said disappointment fueled bitterness – an idea also voiced by an NGO in Tillaberi, the militants-affected region of Nigeria that includes the town of Tera.

“The growing insecurity and the disarray it has caused created a legitimate feeling that the state has abandoned us, as well as a strong feeling against foreign forces,” said the Tillabéri Citizen Committee.

As for the political fallout from the convoy, it is in the interests of France and Niger to keep their relations on track, given the volatile situation in Mali and the growing toll inflicted by the activist, said Depagne.

France first intervened in the Sahel to repel an insurgency in northern Mali. But the rebels regrouped and two years later they spread to Burkina Faso and Niger.

Massacres of villages, roadside bombs and ambushes have left thousands dead and more than a million people have fled their homes.

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