US aid worker and French journalist freed in West Africa
Mon, Mar 20, 2023 3:45 PM
By DALATOU MAMANE, ERIC TUCKER and KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press
NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — An American aid worker and a French journalist kidnapped and held by Islamist extremists were freed and flown to Niger's capital Monday, four days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the country.
U.S. officials said no ransom was paid for aid worker Jeffery Woodke, who was held for more than six years, and praised Niger’s government for helping secure his release. The French government did not comment on how freedom was won for journalist Olivier Dubois, who was abducted almost two years ago in neighboring Mali.
“I thank God first of all. And after God, I thank the government of Niger, the U.S. government and France. Long live France!" said Woodke, his long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail as he used a walking stick.
“I’m very happy to be back in Niamey again, in Niger, my second country, and I’ve nothing more to say apart from, 'Hello to my family.' That’s all,” he said.
Dubois beamed as he greeted well-wishers, telling journalists that he was tired but otherwise fine.
“It’s amazing for me to be here, to be free,” the 48-year-old journalist said. “I didn’t expect it at all. I would like to pay tribute to Niger, and to its knowledge of these types of delicate missions. And to pay tribute to France and to all those who made it possible to be here today.”
Blinken visited the region last week and on Thursday spoke to the press in Niger, where he announced $150 million in direct assistance to the Sahel region.
“I’m very pleased we are now seeing that come to fruition today," Blinken said, thanking his team, and Niger, for their efforts.
Woodke lived in Niger for three decades and had been kidnapped from his home in the town of Abalak in October 2016. Gunmen ambushed and killed his guards, then forced him at gunpoint into their truck, where he was driven north toward Mali’s border.
At a 2021 news conference in Washington, Els Woodke said she believed her husband was being held by an al-Qaida-linked militant group known as JNIM and that his captors had sought a multimillion-dollar ransom.
Dubois also was being held by JNIM militants, though it was unclear how much time the two foreign hostages had spent in captivity together, said Laith Alkhouri, CEO of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory.
Officials in Niger unexpectedly announced Monday morning that the two men had taken a special flight to the country's capital but provided no details. U.S. officials said the American hostage was not freed in Niger but in the surrounding region that includes Mali, where Dubois was abducted in 2021.
Also on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that two of its employees were freed in Mali. The organization would not disclose the employees’ identities or the circumstances of their abductions, and it could not be confirmed if there was any connection to the other hostages who were released.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said efforts to free Woodke were headed by U.S. military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies , working closely with the French.
“It was a team effort to get him out, and there were no concessions made,” Kirby said. “There were no swaps here. This was just hard, grueling, deliberate work by diplomats and other experts directly with the government of Niger to get him home.”
Woodke and Debois were the highest-profile foreigners known to be held in the region, and their release was the largest since a French woman and two Italian men were freed together in Mali in October 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron wrote that he had spoken with Dubois on Monday.
“Immense relief for the nation, for his relatives and fellow journalists,” Macron tweeted. "Deep gratitude to Niger for this release.”
Although it remained unclear what led to the releases, “it might not be a coincidence” that the hostages' freedom came after Blinken visited Niger and offered millions of dollars in aid, Alkhouri said.
The aid "could have oiled the Niger government to use its intelligence apparatus in negotiating their release," Alkhouri said.
A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on background, said Woodke was the second American to be freed in the last six months and that the topic had come up last week during Blinken's visit to Niamey. The identity of the other hostage freed in Niger was not made public.
Groups have long abducted hostages for ransom in the Sahel, the vast, semi-arid expanse below the Sahara Desert. Previously released captives have described being moved frequently from site to site in harrowing conditions and sweltering temperatures. The extremists aim to use ransom money to fund their jihadi operations, though not all countries engage in payment negotiations.
The Biden administration official did not identify the specific group believed responsible for holding Woodke, saying overlapping networks operated in that part of West Africa.
At least 25 foreigners and untold numbers of locals have been kidnapped in the Sahel since 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. In 2020, Swiss authorities said Christian missionary Beatrice Stoeckli was killed by her militant captors.
Militants with links to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are still believed to be holding captives, including a German priest. The Rev. Hans-Joachim Lohre was preparing to celebrate Mass in Mali’s capital when he was abducted in November.
Last year an Italian couple and their child were abducted with a household employee in southern Mali. Other hostages taken in West Africa include Ken Elliott, an Australian doctor abducted in 2016, and Romanian citizen Julian Ghergut, who was seized near a mining site in 2015.
Tucker reported from Washington, and Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Ellen Knickmeyer and Aamer Madhani in Washington; Angela Charlton in Paris; and Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.