The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has previously sent military forces into troubled member states and imposed sanctions, had told the coup leaders to stand down by Sunday. But the coup leaders instead closed Niger’s airspace and pledged to defend the country.

“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,” a spokesman for the coup leaders said in a statement on national television.

Landlocked Niger is more than twice the size of France, and many flight paths across Africa would normally pass through its airspace. Air France suspended flights to and from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Bamako in Mali, which both border Niger, until Friday and warned that some flight times would increase.

ECOWAS spokesperson Amos Lungu said on Monday that the bloc would hold the extraordinary summit on Niger in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, where its headquarters are located.

The 15-nation bloc has taken a harder stance on the Niger coup, the region’s seventh in three years, than it did on previous ones.

ECOWAS defence chiefs agreed on Friday on a possible military action plan if the detained president, Mohamed Bazoum, was not released and reinstated although they said operational decisions would be decided by their heads of state.

However, the bloc is not united. The military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, both ECOWAS members, have promised to come to the defence of their counterparts in Niger if needed.

Both countries were sending delegations to Niamey to show their solidarity, the Malian army said on social media on Monday, and the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 showed a Burkina Faso military plane arriving in Niger’s capital at about 12:20 pm (11:20 GMT).

A fracture within ECOWAS and an escalation of the standoff with Niger would further destabilise one of the world’s poorest regions, which is already facing a hunger crisis and armed groups that have killed thousands of people and displaced millions.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in an interview published on Monday that ECOWAS should extend its deadline for the reinstatement of Bazoum.

“The only way is the diplomatic one,” Tajani told La Stampa newspaper.

“It is right that he [Bazoum] should be freed, but we cannot do it. The United States are very cautious about this. It is unthinkable that they would start a military intervention in Niger,” Tajani added.

At pro-coup rallies in Niamey, some participants have cast the situation as a patriotic battle by the former French colony to retain its independence in the face of imperialist interference. Some have held up Russian flags and expressed anti-French sentiments.

“The aim of the demonstration is to show the whole world and the international community that we are 100% behind [the military],” demonstrator Amadou Hamadou Moumouni said during a rally at the national stadium on Sunday.

Bazoum said in an opinion piece published last week that he was a hostage and called on the US and the international community to restore constitutional order.

“There is a rather extraordinary alignment of the West and of Africa … to condemn what is happening,” French European Affairs Minister Laurence Boone said on Monday.

“I hope that we will be able to restore democracy and the constitution without blood and in peace,” she said on the French television channel LCI.

Niger’s uranium and oil reserves and its pivotal role in a war with armed groups in the Sahel region give it economic and strategic importance for the US, Europe, China and Russia.

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