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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

American held hostage in Africa is freed

By Eric Schmitt and Adam Goldman

An American aid worker abducted by militants more than six years ago in West Africa has been freed, his wife and U.S. officials said earlier this week, but the circumstances of his release were not immediately clear.

The aid worker, Jeffery Woodke, was kidnapped in Niger in October 2016 and then was believed to have been taken to neighboring Mali.

His wife, Els Woodke, of McKinleyville, California, said the U.S. government had notified her that her husband had been freed. She was told that he was in Niamey, the capital of Niger, and later spoke with him for an hour.

“He is safe,” she said in a phone interview. After she spoke with him, she said, he was in “great spirits.”

A U.S. official said Woodke, 62, was in Niamey and was being medically evaluated. Another senior administration official briefing reporters confirmed Woodke’s release, and said the United States had not paid a ransom or made other concessions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as part of standard rules for security briefings.

President Joe Biden thanked Niger and “dedicated public servants across the U.S. government” for securing Woodke’s release. “We remain committed to keep faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world, and there is no higher priority for this administration than our work to bring them home,” Biden said in a statement.

A French security official confirmed that another hostage had also been released: Olivier Dubois, a French journalist who went missing in Mali in April 2021, and was later seen in a hostage video issued by an al-Qaida affiliate there.

Woodke’s release ends an arduous ordeal in which U.S. officials believed at times that a dangerous military operation would have been required to free him. There is no indication that the United States mounted such a rescue or was involved in the release of the two men.

But Woodke’s kidnapping played a role in a fatal ambush of U.S. troops in West Africa.

In October 2017, U.S. soldiers raced to a location in the scrubland of Niger after intelligence officials intercepted a signal from the cellphone of a terrorist known as Doundoun Cheffou, a senior lieutenant of a former affiliate of al-Qaida that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Cheffou was being tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies both because of his seniority in the terrorist group and because he was suspected of having played a role in Woodke’s kidnapping.

The nighttime raid failed to find Cheffou, but hours later four of the Americans were killed in an ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo.

The senior administration official who briefed reporters said that while Woodke was captured in Niger, he appeared to have been taken across its borders. The official said Woodke was released outside Niger, in an area to the west that includes Mali and Burkina Faso.

The official did not specify what organization had taken Woodke, calling it a hostage-taking “network.”

The official added that another prisoner captured in Niger, whom the official did not name, was released by the same network about six months ago.

Efforts to release Woodke had been underway for a long time, the official said, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who stopped in Niger during a visit to Africa last week, had “confirmed” the release while there.

The official said that France — which is Niger’s former colonial ruler and maintains ties with its government — had also played an important role in securing Woodke’s release.

Dubois told reporters in Niger that “it’s huge for me to be here, to be free,” and thanked the governments of France and Niger.

Dubois, 48, was the only known French citizen to be held hostage in Africa. He was kidnapped on April 8, 2021, in the city of Gao, nearly 600 miles northeast of Mali’s capital, Bamako, where he was based, as he was scheduled to interview a jihadi leader. Weeks later, he confirmed his kidnapping in a 21-second clip circulated on social media.

For nearly two years, Dubois’ family, French journalists and human rights defenders campaigned for his release and regularly broadcast messages on Radio France International, a state-owned station with a significant following in French-speaking African countries. Dubois said he was able to listen to the messages even after the Malian military junta suspended the radio station amid a fallout with the French government.

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