French journalist Olivier Dubois, who has been held hostage in the West Africa Sahel for nearly two years, and U.S. aid wo...

Kidnapped U.S. aid worker, French journalist freed in West Africa

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — An American aid worker and a French journalist kidnapped and held by Islamist extremists were freed on Monday, four days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit to West Africa.

U.S. officials said no ransom had been paid for aid worker Jeffery Woodke, who was held for more than six years. They 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 Mali.

Blinken had 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. “We won’t rest until they’re all home, like Jeffery, reunited with their families.”

Els Woodke released a statement through a family spokesman saying that she had not yet spoken with her husband, but had been told he was in good condition.

“She praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome,” the statement read.

Woodke had been kidnapped from his home in Abalak, Niger, in October 2016 by men who ambushed and killed his guards and forced him at gunpoint into their truck, where he was driven north toward Mali’s border.

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At a 2021 news conference in Washington, Els Woodke said she believed that her husband was being held by an al-Qaida-linked militant group known as JNIM and said her husband’s captors had made a multi-million-dollar ransom demand for his release.

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 that the American hostage was not freed in Niger but in the surrounding region that includes Mali, where Dubois was abducted in 2021.

Both appeared to be physically well when they met briefly with a small group of journalists in Niamey. Dubois smiled broadly as he was greeted by well-wishers, saying 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.”

Woodke, who wore his long grey hair in a ponytail and used a walking stick, did not speak to journalists.

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 the abduction, and it could not be confirmed if there was any connection to the other hostages whose release was announced the same day.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said efforts to free Woodke were spearheaded by the U.S. military, law enforcement and intelligence community, working closely with the French government.

“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.”

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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 back 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.”

The press organization Reporters Without Borders, which had long pushed for Dubois’ release, also celebrated Monday.

“We feel joy and immense relief,” the group said, thanking French authorities, too.

Alkhouri of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory said that: “While it remains unclear what circumstances led to the release of the hostages, it might not be a coincidence that their freedom came as Blinken wrapped up his visit to Niger and earmarked millions of dollars in aid, some of which could have oiled the Niger government to use its intelligence apparatus in negotiating their release.”

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on background, said Woodke is the second American to be freed in the last six months and that the topic had come up during Blinken’s visit to Niamey last week. The identity of the other hostage freed in Niger was not made public.

“We have certainly been in touch with them about what a priority it is for us to secure the release of Americans like Jeff Woodke, and that’s something that the Secretary confirmed when he was out there,” the official said.

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 amid sweltering temperatures. The extremists aim to use millions in ransom 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 keeping Woodke in captivity, saying a number of overlapping networks in 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 believed to still be holding a number of captives, including a German priest. The Rev. Hans-Joachim Lohre was preparing to celebrate Mass in Mali’s capital when he was abducted last 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, 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 in Washington; Angela Charlton in Paris and Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed.