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UN chief condemns Niger coup

NIAMEY, Feb 20 – UN chief Ban Ki-moon added his voice to international condemnation of a coup that toppled Niger\’s president, but in the capital Niamey thousands celebrated the end of Mamadou Tandja\’s rule.

"The secretary general condemns the coup d\’etat that took place in Niger" and "appeals for calm and for the respect of the rule of law and of the human rights of all Nigerians," his office said in a statement issued Friday.

But thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate the coup and an opposition alliance called on people to show their support for the new junta in a rally in the capital Saturday.

Earlier Friday, Niger\’s new military rulers had lifted the curfew declared just hours after Thursday\’s coup, in which at least three soldiers died.

The African Union, whose leader Jean Ping had already condemned the takeover earlier in the day, announced it was suspending Niger from its ranks Friday.

"We have condemned the coup and imposed sanctions on Niger: Niger is suspended from all activities of the AU," said Mull Sebujja Katende, who presides over the African Union\’s peace and security council.

The body also called for Niger to revert to the constitution in place before last August\’s controversial referendum that allowed Tandja to stay in office, potentially for life.

A statement by Niger\’s new rulers, who call themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), has already suggested that they would do just that, a point that Ban highlighted in his statement.

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He called on the junta to "proceed swiftly with these efforts through a process that is consensual and that includes all segments of Nigerian society."

International condemnation of the coup grew Friday with the United States calling for a "speedy return to democracy" and former colonial ruler France demanding fresh elections "in the coming months".

The European Union also condemned the coup.

Niger\’s military junta meanwhile authorised free movement in and out of the country after capturing the president and sacking his government.

"The situation is under control," junta spokesman Colonel Goukoye Abdoulkarim told journalists.

In Niamey, thousands of people gathered outside the military barracks to express support for the junta, shouting "Long live the soldiers" and "We are in your support," according to an AFP correspondent.

A prominent junta member, Colonel Djibrilla Hamidou Hima, addressed the crowd and told people to spread the word that country was "doing fine."

Hundreds of people also gathered in the western city of Dosso "to express their support for the junta," trader Mahamadou Boureima told AFP by telephone.

People on motorcycles, in cars and on foot shouted "long live the council (junta)" and "Down with the regime of Tandja", the trader said.

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There were also celebrations in Tahoua, the home region of leading opposition figure Mahamadou Issoufou, residents told AFP.

An opposition coalition, the Coordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic, meanwhile called on its members to "participate massively" in a pro-junta rally in Niamey on Saturday.

The army stormed the palace during a cabinet meeting Thursday, seized Tandja and detained his ministers.

It announced it was suspending the constitution that the 71-year-old had forced through with the contested August referendum.

In a statement broadcast on state television late Thursday, the CSRD promised to make the world\’s third largest uranium producer a beacon of "good democracy and governance" after months of political turmoil.

It dissolved the government of the poverty-stricken nation early Friday before holding its first meeting with senior officials of ministries.

In his first public speech to reporters, junta leader Major Salou Djibo said he would set up a consultative working council to take collective decisions.

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