Niger army to choose new leader

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THE POLITICAL future of Niger, whose assassinated president was buried yesterday, lies in the hands of the military after no clear succession candidate emerged from weekend talks.

President Ibrahim Barre Mainassara, who came to power in a 1996 military coup and repressed political opposition, was buried at Noumega, his home village, on the border with Nigeria. He was shot dead on Friday at the airport of the capital, Niamey. He had been due to fly to the neighbouring West African state of Burkina Faso en route this week to a summit in Libya of six states in the region, known as Comessa.

In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, as in other countries of Comessa - Mali, Chad and Sudan - flags were flown at half mast yesterday. In a televised address, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader who is president of the group, paid tribute to Mainassara and urged Niger to "safeguard its democratic gains and build on them".

Reports from Niamey indicated that the mood was calm after Friday's shooting, in which up to five people died.Sources said Mainassara, known as "IBM", was shot by the airport ceremonial guard on the orders of his own head of security, Col Ibrahim Malamanke. On the eve of his assassination, the president had reportedly been asked to resign by army chiefs, but had refused.

Yesterday's funeral was attended by the Chief of General Staffs, Colonel Moussa Moumouni Djermakoye, but not by Colonel Malamanke.

Mainassara was the Chief of General Staffs when he came to power in a January 1996 coup, which deposed President Mahamane Ousmane, claiming his predecessor had failed to address the country's political and economic problems.

Later that year, Mainassara was elected president in a poll in which he sacked the electoral commission and locked up opposition leaders. During his rule, the army and police clamped down on opponents. There were street battles in April last year when demonstrators burnt cars and military vehicles. Niger is a vast country with a population of abouteight million, but most of it is desert. The former French colony exports uranium but is largely a subsistence-farming economy.

The creation last year of Comessa - which Eritrea is also expected to join - has been a boon to the country and to the organisation's other impoverished members, because of Libya's oil-based wealth. The Comessa countries were the first last year to decide to defy the United Nations ban on air travel to Libya, imposed over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. They were later backed by the Organisation of African Unity. Last week the UN suspended the ban when two Libyans accused of planting the bomb were handed over for trial.