Military commanders from several West African countries are meeting Thursday in Ghana to coordinate a possible intervention to reverse the coup in Niger at the end of July
Alarmed by several coups in the region in recent years, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to mobilise its "standby force" to "restore constitutional order" in Niger.
The two-day meeting of the chiefs of staff comes after a new episode of violence in the jihadist insurgency-hit country, with an ambush by Islamist militiamen that killed at least 17 soldiers.
An army detachment was "ambushed by terrorists near the town of Koutougou" in the southwest near Burkina Faso on Tuesday, Niger's Defence Ministry said.
In addition, some 20 soldiers were wounded, six of them seriously, in the worst jihadist attack since the 26 July coup.
Jihadist groups have gripped Africa's Sahel region for more than a decade. They emerged in northern Mali in 2012 and expanded into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.
The 'three frontiers' area between these countries is a regular scene of actions by rebel groups affiliated with Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
This insurgency has killed thousands of soldiers, police and civilians in the region and displaced millions of people.
This violence has fuelled military coups in all three countries since 2020, most recently in Niger to depose the democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum.
The military that detained the head of state, an important Western ally in the region, justified themselves on the grounds of the "security situation".
For now, ECOWAS has prioritised a diplomatic solution over an intervention that analysts say would be militarily and politically risky.
The regional bloc issued a communiqué "strongly condemning" the latest jihadist attack and urging the military to "restore constitutional order in Niger in order to focus on security (...), weakened since the coup attempt".
This week, representatives of the organisation and Niger held talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa under the auspices of the African Union.
The United States said Wednesday it will send a new ambassador to Niamey to try to lead diplomatic efforts to reverse the coup.
In another significant move, Nigeria's military-appointed prime minister, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, on Tuesday visited neighbouring Chad, a key country in the Sahel that is not part of ECOWAS.
"We are in a transition process, we discussed the details and reiterated our readiness to remain open and talk to all parties, but we insist on the independence of our country," Zeine said.
Bazoum's 2021 election was a milestone in Niger's history as the first peaceful transition of power since independence from France in 1960.
Before he was arrested and deposed by his presidential guard, Bazoum had overcome two coup attempts.
ECOWAS applied financial and trade sanctions against Niamey and France, the United States and Germany suspended their aid programmes for Niamey, one of the world's poorest countries.
The United Nations warned Wednesday that the crisis could worsen food insecurity in the country and urged humanitarian exemptions to sanctions and border closures to avert catastrophe.