By Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN
(CNN) — Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with some of the members of the military junta in Niger Monday – a significant diplomatic push to restore democratic rule in what has been a key US partner nation.
Nuland met with Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the self-proclaimed chief of defense, and three colonels supporting him for more than two hours for “extremely frank and at times quite difficult” conversations, she said.
Nuland is the highest level US official to meet in person with the military putschists. Her trip to the capital city of Niamey – made at the request of Secretary of State Antony Blinken – comes less than two weeks after members of Niger’s presidential guard seized power and a day after the deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for the military junta to restore democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum to power or risk a military intervention.
Nuland told reporters Monday that the US “kept open the door to continue talking” and urged Barmou and his allies “to hear our offer to try to work with them to solve this diplomatically and return to constitutional order.”
“I hope they will keep the door open to diplomacy. We made that proposal,” Nuland said. “Their ideas do not comport with the Constitution. And that would be difficult in terms of our relationship if that’s the path they take, but we gave them a number of options to keep talking and we hope they take us up on that.”
Nuland noted that she was not granted a meeting with the self-proclaimed new leader of Niger, General Abdourahmane Tiani, “so we were left to have to depend on Mr. Barmou to make clear again what is at stake.”
The US was pushing for a negotiated solution in Niger, Nuland explained, but “it was not easy to get traction there” because the putschists “are quite firm in their view of how they want to proceed.”
Nuland said she was frank about what is at risk if they do not reverse course and that she explained “very clearly” the US’ legal responsibilities if the military takeover is formally declared a coup, telling them that “it is not our desire to go there, but they may push us to that point.”
The US is required under law to cut foreign and military assistance to the Nigerien government if a formal coup designation is made. On Friday, Blinken announced the US had paused certain assistance.
“That assistance will affect development aid to the government, security aid to the government. It’s a significant amount,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Monday.
There are roughly 1,000 US troops currently stationed in Niger. Barmou, the junta leader with whom she met Monday, had worked with US special forces in Niger for many years, “so we were able to go through, in considerable detail, the risks to aspects of our cooperation that he has historically cared about a lot,” Nuland said.
The acting deputy secretary also sought to emphasize the threat from the Wagner Group, with whom some of the putschists have reportedly begun to engage. Although US officials have said that the group, which has a significant presence in Africa, did not have a role in instigating the coup, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has already sought to exploit the situation.
“I got the sense in my meetings today that the people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in,” Nuland said.
Nuland’s request to see detained President Bazoum while in Niamey was denied, she told reporters Monday.
“We’ve talked to him on the phone, but we haven’t seen him,” she said.
“We also asked for some gestures of health and welfare. He is in a very difficult situation under virtual house arrest along with his son and his wife. I hope over the coming period, the people responsible for the current situation will come back to those requests,” Nuland added.
She was able to meet with “a broad cross section of Nigerien civil society” while in Niamey, she said.
“These are longtime friends of the United States. They are journalists, they are democratic advocates, they are human rights activists,” she said. “We had a frank exchange about the situation here.”
This story has been updated with additional details.
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