Benin sentences 3 Nigeriens amid diplomatic spat

Cotonou, Benin — A Benin court on Monday handed 18-month suspended jail sentences to three Nigeriens at the center of a diplomatic dispute as tensions escalate between the West African neighbors.

Ties between Benin and Niger have been strained since last year’s coup ousted Nigerien President Mohammed Bazoum, and Benin’s Atlantic port of Seme-Kpodji, which exports landlocked Niger’s oil, has become a flashpoint.

Five Nigeriens were arrested earlier this month at Seme-Kpodji, accused of entering the port illegally.

On Monday, Benin’s Court for the Repression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism (CRIET) sentenced three of them to 18 months in prison suspended, an AFP correspondent said.

Moumouni Hadiza Ibra, Deputy General Director of Wapco-Niger — a local affiliate of a Chinese company operating a pipeline from Niger to Benin’s coast — and two of her compatriots were jailed after their initial arrest.

Wapco has not responded to emails seeking a response.

The court on Monday reclassified the charges as “usurpation of title and use of falsified computer data.”

Lawyers for the three defendants denied all the charges, an AFP correspondent said.

Under regional sanctions imposed on Niger after last year’s coup, Benin closed the border, but it has since reopened its side of the frontier. Niger’s military rulers have refused to reopen their side.

Beninese President Patrice Talon had long conditioned the start of loading of Nigerien oil from Benin’s port on the reopening of the border.

According to Niamey, the arrested team were on a mission to Benin to oversee the loading of oil.

The military regime in Niger described the arrests as a “kidnapping” and said it was ready to “take all measures” to have them released “unconditionally.”

The day after their arrests, the military regime in Niamey closed the valves of the oil pipeline, according to Niger public television.

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