— The Associated Press

NIAMEY, Niger — Renegade soldiers in armored vehicles stormed Niger’s presidential palace with a hail of gunfire in broad daylight Thursday, kidnapping the country’s strongman president and then appearing on state television to declare they staged a successful coup.

The soldiers also said on state TV that the country’s constitution had been suspended and all its insitutions dissolved. A spokesman said the country is now being led by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and asked citizens and the international community to have faith in them.

Smoke rose from the palace complex and the echo of gunfire sent frightened residents running for cover.

Traore Amadou, a local journalist who was in the presidency when the shooting began, said President Mamadou Tandja was kidnapped by mutinous troops.

Radio France Internationale reported that the soldiers burst in and neutralized the presidential guard before entering the room where Tandja was holding a Cabinet meeting. They politely escorted him outside to a waiting car, which drove him toward a military camp on the outskirts of the capital. His whereabouts remained unknown hours later, when the soldiers took to the airwaves to announce the coup.

Tandja first took power in democratic elections in 1999 that followed an era of coups and rebellions. But instead of stepping down as mandated by law on Dec. 22, he triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new constitution in August that removed term limits and gave him near-totalitarian powers.