France and other European countries have initiated the evacuation of their citizens from Niger, following a military takeover in the former French colony that has exacerbated regional tensions and sparked rising anti-French sentiment.
Planes evacuating Europeans and others have been departing from Niger's main international airport, southeast of the capital Niamey, and arriving in France and Italy following the coup on July 26 that overthrew the West African country's president.
The coup ignited demonstrations against the former colonial power, with the French embassy targeted. Despite this, France confirmed it intends to maintain its 1,000-strong military presence as part of efforts to combat Islamist militants.
Niger's elected President Mohamed Bazoum and his administration were ousted by his own presidential guard, marking the seventh military coup in west and central Africa in less than three years.
"Considering the situation in Niamey, the violence against our embassy the day before yesterday and the fact that the airspace is shut and our citizens cannot leave by their own means, France is preparing the evacuation of its citizens and (other) European citizens who want to leave the country," said a statement from the French Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. "The evacuation will start today."
The first evacuation flight from Niger left on Tuesday evening, carrying 262 passengers, and arrived in Paris early on Wednesday. An estimated 600 French citizens were residing in Niger, the BBC reported.
Spain's government said it too will evacuate its citizens by air, while Germany has encouraged its citizens to accept an offer from France to assist other European nationals to evacuate.
Italy arranged a flight to transport 87 evacuees, including 36 Italians, 21 US citizens, and one Briton, which landed in Rome on Wednesday morning, Reuters reported.
The urgent nature of the evacuation operation mirrors an escalating security crisis, as military regimes in adjacent Burkina Faso and Mali have warned that any forceful reinstatement of Bazoum would be perceived as a war declaration. Both neighbors are grappling to contain jihadist insurgencies, Agence France-Presse reported.
Recent coups in the region have occurred amid an increasing wave of anti-French feelings, leading to the removal of French military forces from Mali and Burkina Faso this year and last.
Uranium-rich Niger has served as a pivotal ally for Western countries in combating jihadist radicalism in the Sahel, hosting military bases for both France and the United States.
On Tuesday, the European Union repeated its call for the release of Bazoum. An EU spokesperson added that the bloc had not initiated any evacuations, but was supporting member states.
A statement from Washington said the US presently has no plans to remove its citizens from Niger, but it has suspended training with forces in Niamey.