American Christian aid worker Jeffrey Woodke has been freed after being taken hostage by Islamic extremists more than six years ago in Africa’s mostly desert nation of Niger.
French journalist Olivier Dubois was released at the same time after being abducted almost two years ago. Both hostages appeared in good physical condition although Mr. Woodke was using a walking stick.
The 61-year-old made a very brief statement, saying: “I thank God first of all. And after God, I thank the government of Niger, the US government and France. Long live France! I’m very happy to be back in [the capital] Niamey again, in Niger, my second country, and I’ve nothing more to say apart from, ‘Hello to my family.’ That’s all.”
A family statement said his wife Els Woodke: “praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome.”
The missionary who had served in Niger for three decades was 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 which drove him north towards the Mali border.
For years, the US government maintained a cone of silence over his fate and efforts to rescue him.
In 2021, his frustrated wife broke that silence and said she believed her husband was being held by an al-Qaeda-linked militant group known as JNIM and that her husband’s captors had sought a multimillion-dollar ransom.
US officials insisted no ransom had been paid and praised Niger’s government for helping the aid worker’s release, but gave no details about who had held him and where he was handed over, except to say it wasn’t in Niger.
Both Mr. Woodke and Mr. Dubois were flown to the Niger capital Niamey from an undisclosed location, possibly in Mali.
Their release came just days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an official visit to Niger, where he pledged US$150 million in direct assistance to the Sahel region.
Mr. Woodke who is from northern California had lived in Niger since 1992, working with JEMED, a local partner of US non-profit Youth With A Mission (YWAM), which helps Tuareg and Fulani herdsmen who are battling disease, drought and lack of education.
The Baptist-run Redwood Coast School of Missions where he was once an instructor says in its bio notes of Mr. Woodke: “Jeff’s passion in providing humanitarian aid to those who are among the poorest in the world, coupled with his desire to see God’s kingdom advanced in a largely Muslim world has played a large part in the life and ministry of Arcata First Baptist Church.”
The Associated Press reports Islamic terror 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 payments to fund their jihadi operations, though not all countries engage in payment negotiations.
The International Committee of the Red Cross announced that two of its employees have also just been freed in Mali. It would not disclose their identities or the circumstances of the abduction. It’s unknown whether the separate releases are connected.