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Niger president held hostage in apparent coup attempt

[JURIST] Niger President Mamadou Tandja [BBC profile] was taken hostage on Thursday in an apparent coup attempt by dissident army officials, leaving at least three Nigerien soldiers dead. The opposition forces invaded the presidential palace [AP report] with machine guns during a meeting of government ministers and kidnapped Tandja along with half of his cabinet. The attack comes six months after a referendum was passed abolishing presidential term limits [JURIST report] and allowing Tandja to remain in office for three more years and to run in any subsequent elections. Niger's opposition parties denounced the referendum, claiming that Tandja inflated poll numbers to support the new constitution's adoption. The international community also responded to the supposedly invalid referendum by freezing non-humanitarian aid from Western countries and suspending Niger from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) [official website]. The coup has been condemned by both ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) [official website].

Several opposition leader were arrested after the parties pledged to oppose Tandja's new constitution, which also allowed the president to appoint one third of the members [CBC report] of a newly-created senate, and establish a media-monitoring position that would have the authority to jail reporters thought to present a threat to the country. In September, members of the opposition parties said that police had detained 30 former opposition lawmakers [JURIST report], allegedly at the behest of Tandja. The 30 former members of parliament were arrested on charges of embezzlement [AFP report], but were likely being targeted for their dissidence, as they refused to recognize Tandja's expansion of powers. One week later, Nigerien opposition leader of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) [party website, in French], Mahamadou Issoufou, was charged with financial crimes [JURIST report]. The PNDS claimed the corruption charges were politically motivated [BBC report]. Issoufou, who is barred from leaving the country [AFP report], has been released on bail. Niger [CIA World Factbook profile], which is known for its exportation of uranium, has gone through five constitutions and military regimes since its founding in 1960.

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