Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland spoke with Niger's coup leadership in Niamey on Monday. File Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 8 (UPI) -- A top U.S. State Department official has traveled to Niger and held talks with its military coup leadership, as the Biden administration seeks a diplomatic end to the crisis in the West African nation.
Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told reporters via teleconference from Niamey that she met Monday with Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, a leader of the so-called National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, which ousted civilian rule of the country July 26 in a coup and detained Niger's democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.
She said she spoke with the general and three of his supporting colonels for more than two hours in talks that were "extremely frank and at times quite difficult."
"We are pushing for a negotiated solution. It was not easy to get traction there," she said. "They are quite firm in their view on how they want to proceed, and it does not comport with the constitution of Niger."
The United States has been among Western nations to condemn the ousting of civilian rule in Niger, which is the latest West African nation to fall in a coup in the last several years.
The Biden administration has since paused some of its assistance to the country, with the remainder under threat.
Nuland said they made "absolutely clear" to the junta leadership of the kinds of economic and other support that was at stake if democracy was not restored in Niger.
"We kept open the door to continue talking. But, again, it was difficult today," she said.
The United States asked to meet with Bazoum who is under house arrest with his wife and son, but their request was not granted, she said, adding they were also not granted a meeting with the self-proclaimed head of Niger, Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani.
"So, we were left to have to depend on Mr. Barmou to make clear, again, what is at stake," she said.
Negotiations will be difficult, she continued.
The threat posed by doing business with the Russian paramilitary group Wagner was also raised, she said.
Wagner was a leading effort in the Kremlin's war in Ukraine until attempting a mutiny in June. Though relatively unknown until recently, Wagner has been active in Africa for years.
The Congressional Research Service said in a Thursday report that Wagner has been active in several African nations, including Mali and Sudan, whose governments were both ousted in recent military coups.
Wagner forces have also engaged in outreach with Burkina Faso, a country that twice fell to coups last year, and has also sought to destabilize the government of Chad, the report said, citing U.S. officials.
Wagner's head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, celebrated the seizure of Niger online.
"The countries where Wagner openly operates share some attributes, notably insurgencies and fraught relations with traditional donors," the report said.
"Mali and Sudan are under military rule, while [Central African Republic] and Mali are former French colonies that once hosted French military operations. Burkina Faso and Chad fit both latter categories, as may Niger."
The coup forced the Economic Community of West African States last week to threaten Niger, who is a member, with military force if it did not reinstate Bazoum as the head of the country by Sunday.
As that deadline elapsed, Niger's coup leadership indefinitely closed its airspace due to the threat of foreign military intervention.
Nuland said she informed the coup that where Wagner is present security and human rights worsen.
"I would not say that we learned much more about their thinking on that front," she said, adding, "I will say that I got the sense in my meetings today that the people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in."