Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, at the Africa-South America summit in Venezuela in 2009. Photograph: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
The president of Niger was apparently being held captive by mutinous soldiers today in an attempted coup.
Witnesses said President Mamadou Tandja and his cabinet were missing after gunmen stormed the presidential palace. The violence came months after a referendum in Niger was passed allowing Tandja to extend his rule for years past the constitutional limit.
Moussa Mounkaila, a palace chauffeur, said that gunmen showed up as a meeting of government ministers was taking place at the palace.
A French diplomatic source said: "There is still some confusion but it seems that President Tandja and his ministers are in the hands of mutinous soldiers."
The BBC quoted a government source as saying that Tandja and his ministers were being held by soldiers. Smoke was seen rising from the palace amid heavy gunfire in Niamey, the capital of the uranium-exporting west African nation. There were some reports of fatalities.
Idy Baraou of BBC News in Niamey said on its website: "The exchange of gunfire has been between soldiers but it is confusing and one cannot tell one side from another. I saw tanks being fired and soldiers on the streets using machine guns.
"People have fled the area and some civil servants have locked themselves inside their offices."
Government officials could not be reached for comment. National radio did not mention the developments in an afternoon report. Earlier, an intelligence officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters that the violence was a coup attempt that the presidential guard was trying to put down.
The opposition had protested against the August 2009 referendum, saying it granted Tandja near-totalitarian powers. Tandja claimed he was only pushing to stay in power because the people wanted it. He has taken the path of many long-serving African leaders, breaking a promise he had frequently made to step down when his term expired in December.