Niamey: Niger edged closer to conflict after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) deadline threatening military intervention expired on Sunday.

In the wake of an ultimatum from the West African states to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s coup leaders have closed the country’s airspace, Al Jazeera reported on Monday.

The move announced late on Sunday, came as tens of thousands of coup supporters gathered at a stadium in Niger’s capital, Niamey, to cheer on the generals who seized power – or the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP).

Amadou Abdramane, a spokesman for the CNSP, cited the threat of military intervention from the ECOWAS for the airspace closure.

Abdramane said in a statement read out on national television, that there had been a pre-deployment of forces in two Central African countries in preparation for intervention, but did not give details.

“In the face of the threat of intervention, which is becoming clearer through the preparation of neighbouring countries, Niger’s airspace is closed from this day on Sunday… for all aircraft until further notice,” Al Jazeera quoted Abdramane as saying.

He added, “Niger’s armed forces and all our defence and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” he added.

Meanwhile, the deadline set by regional bloc ECOWAS was supposed to expire on Sunday.

If the junta, which grabbed power on July 26, does not comply, it may face a foreign military intervention, the ECOWAS deadline stated.

Its leaders claimed that they ousted the president to fight “jihadist insurgents” and stop corruption.

Amid the threat of a regional conflict, West African countries are divided in picking sides.

While, Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast have said they would send troops. Although, the Nigerian Senate has pushed back against President Bola Tinubu’s request for a deployment approval, asking him to explore options other than the use of force.

On the other hand, Burkina Faso and Mali – which are ruled by military-backed governments – have said any intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them. Algeria, which shares a long land border with Niger, has also warned against a military solution.

Notably, France – Niger’s former colonial ruler, which has about 1,500 troops in the country – said it would “firmly” back whatever course of action ECOWAS takes after the deadline expired. But it did not specify if that included military assistance.

Russia, on the other hand, has opposed military intervention in Niger, while the head of its Wagner mercenary group has offered the services of his fighters to the country.

Niger’s coup leaders have reportedly sought help from Wagner, which has become an influential force in Mali since the coup there in 2021 and has a longer-standing presence in the Central African Republic as well as Libya.

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, military coups have occurred frequently in Niger. However, political instability has declined recently. In 2021, Bazoum was elected president in the nation's first democratic transfer of power.

Before gaining its independence in 1960, Niger spent more than 50 years as a French colony. Strong diplomatic relations existed between the two nations prior to Thursday's coup, but many Nigeriens believe France has continued to treat Niger like an imperial state, depriving it of its natural riches and imposing its leaders' economic policies.

One of the poorest nations in the world, Niger receives aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.