EU ministers back sanctions for Niger over coup

Nigeriens gather one month since coup, to demand French ambassador to leave

By David Latona and Andrew Gray

TOLEDO, Spain (Reuters) -European Union foreign ministers decided on Thursday to lay the legal groundwork for sanctions on coup leaders in Niger but reserved judgment on whether they would support military action by a regional force to restore the ousted government.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said sanctions would mirror those applied by West African regional body ECOWAS and would include humanitarian exemptions.

"We don't want sanctions to become an additional punishment for the world's second-poorest country," he said after a meeting in the Spanish city of Toledo, where the EU ministers also tried to digest news of another coup this week, in Gabon.

The July 26 coup in Niger was a major blow to EU efforts to work with West African countries to fight Islamist militants in the Sahel region - a policy already hit by a string of other military takeovers in the region in recent years.

Earlier this month, ECOWAS pledged to enforce sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes on those preventing the return to power of Niger's democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

ECOWAS has been trying to negotiate with the coup leaders, while also warning it is ready send troops to restore the constitutional order if diplomatic efforts fail.

Diplomats said ECOWAS had informally sounded out the EU about whether it would be willing to provide financial support for a stabilisation force for Niger.

Borrell said the EU would need to study any proposal from ECOWAS carefully. Several EU ministers signalled they wanted the focus to remain on a political solution.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani went as far as declaring that any military solution to the coup would be a "disaster" that could trigger a new migration crisis.

"We need to work day by day for a diplomatic solution," he told reporters as he arrived at the meeting.

France, which is the former colonial power in Niger and has between 1,000 and 1,500 troops in the country, kept a low public profile at the meeting. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna did not speak to reporters before or after the gathering.

But Borrell expressed solidarity with Paris over the junta's order to expel France's ambassador - a decision that France and the EU says the coup leaders have no authority to make.

Hassoumi Massoudou, the foreign minister of Niger's ousted government, and Omar Touray, the head of the ECOWAS Commission, attended the talks in Toledo.

But, in brief statements to reporters, they did not go into detail on what they wanted from the EU.

Asked what type of support he was looking for, Massoudou said: "We already appreciate the political and moral support of the European Union. Of course what we wish from the European Union... is that it stands alongside ECOWAS."

(Reporting by David Latona and Andrew GrayEditing by Shri Navaratnam and Frances Kerry)