US aid worker and French journalist freed after years held hostage in Africa | Sahel

A US aid worker and a French journalist who had been kidnapped by jihadists in the Sahel and held for years have been released.

American aid worker Jeffery Woodke and French freelancer Olivier Dubois emerged from a plane that landed on Monday at an airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Woodke was abducted in Niger in 2016, while Dubois, 48, was kidnapped in Mali in 2021.

Woodke was seized at gunpoint in October 2016 from his home in Abalak in the Tahoua region of Niger, about 350km (220 miles) from Niamey.

The 61-year-old, who was leaning on a stick after his release, had served as a missionary and humanitarian aid worker in Niger for 32 years, according to a supporter’s website.

Before his abduction, Woodke had run an aid group in Abalak called Jemet since 1992, helping the local Tuareg community.

Local residents said he spoke the local language Tamasheq fluently as well as Fula and Arabic.

Dubois is a freelance journalist who has contributed to Libération and the news weekly Le Point.

He himself announced his abduction in a video posted on social networks on 5 May 2021. In it, he said he had been kidnapped in the northern city of Gao by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel which is linked to Al-Qaida.

“I feel tired, but I’m fine,” said Dubois, smiling but visibly overwhelmed, dressed in a white shirt, T-shirt and beige trousers.

“It’s amazing for me to be here, to be free,” he said, speaking to a small group of journalists.

“I want to pay tribute to Niger for its skills in this delicate mission and pay tribute to France, to all those who have helped me to be here today.”

Hamadou Souley, Niger’s interior minister who was at the airport, said “the hostages were picked up safe and sound by the Nigerien authorities before being handed over to the French and American authorities”.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, tweeted he was “gratified & relieved” at Woodke’s release.

“The US thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him.”

France’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment on the release. The conditions of Dubois’s release, including whether it involved a ransom, were not disclosed.

“We feel joy and immense relief,” Reporters Without Borders, also known by its French acronym RSF, said in a statement.

It thanked French authorities for “having implemented the necessary means to obtain his release”, without elaborating.

The Sahel has been ravaged by a jihadist campaign that began in northern Mali in 2012.

In 2015, the insurgency swept into neighbouring Burkina Faso and south-western Niger, a deeply poor nation that was already battling jihadist violence spilling into its south-east from Nigeria.

Across the region, thousands of civilians, police and soldiers have been killed and millions have fled their homes.

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