American Held Hostage in Africa Is Freed
WASHINGTON — An American aid worker abducted by militants more than six years ago in West Africa has been freed, his wife and a senior military official said on Monday, 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, Calif., said the United States government had notified her that her husband had been freed. She said she was told that he was in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
“He is safe,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t yet know if he is healthy.”
A U.S. official confirmed that Mr. Woodke was in Niamey and said he was being medically evaluated. Another senior administration official briefing reporters confirmed Mr. Woodke’s release, and said that 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.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, thanked Niger “for its help in bringing him home” in a Twitter message.
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 affiliate of Al Qaeda there.
Mr. Woodke’s release ends of 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 U.S. mounted such a rescue.
But Mr. Woodke’s kidnapping played a role in a fatal ambush of American soldiers in West Africa.
In October 2017, American 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 Qaeda that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Mr. Cheffou was being tracked by American intelligence agencies both because of his seniority in the terrorist group and because he was suspected of having played a role in Mr. Woodke’s kidnapping.
The nighttime raid failed to find Mr. 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 Mr. Woodke was captured in Niger, he appears to have been taken across its borders into other nations. The official said that Mr. Woodke was released outside of Niger, in an area to the country’s west that includes Mali and Burkina Faso.
The official did not specify what organization had taken Mr. 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
The official said that efforts to release Mr. Woodke had been underway for a long time and that Secretary of State Antony J. 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 Mr. Woodke’s release.
Rukmini Callimachi and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.
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