The new military rulers in Niger ordered the armed forces to go on maximum alert citing an increased threat of attack.
The main West African bloc ECOWAS has been trying to negotiate with the leaders of the July 26 coup, but has said it is ready to deploy troops to restore constitutional order if diplomatic efforts fail.
An internal document issued by its defence chief, which was shared widely online on Saturday, said the order to be on the highest state of readiness would allow forces to respond adequately in case of any attack and “avoid a general surprise”.
“Threats of aggression to the national territory are increasingly being felt,” it said.
ECOWAS downplayed this threat and said on Friday it is “determined to bend backwards to accommodate diplomatic efforts” – although a military intervention remained one of the options on the table.
“For the avoidance of doubt, let me state unequivocally that ECOWAS has neither declared war on the people of Niger, nor is there a plan, as it is being purported, to invade the country,” ECOWAS Commission President Omar Alieu Touray told reporters.
The bloc’s decision earlier in August to activate a so-called standby force for a possible intervention has raised fears of an escalation that could further destabilise the rebellion-ridden Sahel region.
‘Right to choose’
Meanwhile, thousands of people rallied in the capital Niamey on Saturday in support of the military leaders behind last month’s coup.
“This is expected to be the largest rally over the last month. Organisers say they expect one million people here,” said Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from the stadium in Niamey. “They will hear speeches from the military and leaders of the coup.”
The Seyni Kountche stadium, the largest in Niger with a capacity of 30,000 seats, was two-thirds full and the sound of vuvuzelas rang out in the late evening.
The flags of Niger, Algeria, and Russia dotted the stands, while acrobats painted in Niger’s national colours put on a show in the centre of the pitch.
“We have the right to choose the partners we want, France must respect this choice,” said Ramatou Ibrahim Boubacar, a model wearing Nigerien flags from head to toe.
“For 60 years, we have never been independent, only since the day of the coup d’etat,” she said.
Boubacar added the country fully supports the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), which seized power after President Mohamed Bazoum’s government was overthrown on July 26.
‘Ready to fight’
The CNSP is led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who has made former colonial power France its new target.
On Friday, Niger’s foreign ministry announced that French ambassador Sylvain Itte had 48 hours to leave, saying he refused to meet with the new rulers and citing French government actions that were “contrary to the interests of Niger”.
Paris rejected the demand, saying that “the putschists do not have the authority to make this request“.
“The French ambassador, instead of leaving, thinks this is the land of his parents,” said Idrissa Halidou, a healthcare worker and CNSP member. “We are people of war, we are ready to fight against [ECOWAS].”
The West African bloc has applied sanctions against the new regime and threatened to use military means to remove it if the new rulers do not hand back power to Bazoum.
The new rulers in Niamey accuse ECOWAS of being in France’s pocket.
France has 1,500 soldiers based in Niger who had been helping Bazoum in the fight against armed groups that have been active in the country for years.
Marie-Roger Bilou, from the Africa International Media Group, said the coup d’etat in Niger is different from the recent ones in Malia and Burkina Faso, which did not receive much international reaction.
“This time the story is not written yet. Let’s see if the French ambassador leaves. I think they [military rulers] won’t budge now and will wait and see what happens,” Bilou told Al Jazeera.