Niger’s military junta, which has overthrown the country’s elected leader, has claimed the ousted government authorised France to carry out strikes to free the president.
It comes after the presidential guard surrounded the palace in the capital, Niamey, and detained elected president Mohamed Bazoum last week.
Mr Bazoum was elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France, and was largely seen as a Western, and regional, ally in West Africa.
In new comments, one of the leaders of the military coup, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, alleged the Niger foreign minister, acting as prime minister, signed the order allowing France to take action.
France, which ruled Niger as a colony until 1960, has 1,500 soldiers in the country, who had been conducting joint operations with its government, with protesters appearing to be against having foreign military forces in their country.
The now-ruling military has warned foreign governments against trying to free Mr Bazoum, saying it would result in chaos and bloodshed.
France’s foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny that authorisation had been made, telling journalists the only authority it recognises is that of Mr Bazoum.
The comments from the junta come as the leader they ousted last week is pictured for the first time since being detained.
Appearing in a Facebook post from Chad leader Mahamat Idriss Deby, Mr Bazoum is seen smiling inside the presidential palace, where he is being detained.
Writing alongside the pictures, Chad’s leader wrote: “I had in-depth discussions with the leaders… in a fraternal approach which aims to explore all avenues in order to find a peaceful solution to the crisis which is shaking this neighbouring country.”
Mr Deby also spoke to the junta-installed leader General Abdourahamane Tiani during his visit.
Protesters wave Russian flags on the streets of Niamey
On Sunday, anti-government protesters marched through the streets of the capital waving Russian flags and denouncing France.
Demonstrators in Niamey converged on the French embassy and set fire to its doors, stoned the building and burned the country’s flags.
Russian mercenary group Wagner is already operating in neighbouring Mali and its boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has hailed the coup as good news and offered his fighters’ services.
Coup could profoundly impact global fight against terror
The chaotic scenes outside the French embassy in Niger’s capital are certain to provoke deep concern in the West.
What was a fragile democracy now appears to be heading towards full blown military dictatorship – which could end up aligning itself with the Kremlin.
Any shift could also have a profound impact on the global fight against terror.
The US has bases inside the country and its forces are training the country’s soldiers.
For the Pentagon, Niger is a bulwark in its fight against Islamist radicals in the region.
The Sahel has overtaken the Middle East and South Asia as an area of growing militancy.
The latest military takeover in Niger means there is a belt of land from Africa’s east to west coasts under military control.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and for its people these are uncertain and frightening times.
The real tragedy is that this will most likely cause further instability, even civil war, and hamper chances of development.
Another area of concern for the West is Niger’s plentiful supply of uranium, the radioactive metal most commonly used to fuel nuclear reactors.
The country’s uranium plants are heavily guarded but in this period of instability, there will be fears of the potential implications if militant groups took control of the facilities.
Just under 25% of the EU’s uranium imports come from Niger currently, and it’s particularly important with Europe trying to end its energy dependency on Russian stocks.
The Kremlin said the situation in Niger is “cause for serious concern”, with spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying that Russia called for all sides in the coup to show restraint.
They have all refused to recognise the new leaders and have demanded the elected president’s return.
Development aid suspended by France
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, receiving close to $2bn (£1.6bn) a year in official development assistance, according to the World Bank.
It is also a security partner of France and the US, which both use it as a base to fight an Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa’s wider Sahel region.
Conflict experts say out of all the countries in the region, Niger has the most at stake if it turns away from the West, given the millions of dollars of military assistance the international community has poured in.
France has suspended all development aid and other financial aid for Niger.
The Elysee said in a statement: “Anyone who attacks French nationals, the military, diplomats, or French interests will spur an immediate and uncompromising response from France.”
In the UK, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said in a statement that Britain “condemns in the strongest possible terms attempts to undermine democracy, peace and stability in Niger”.