US officials said no ransom had been paid for aid worker Jeffery Woodke, praising Niger’s government for helping his release. The French government did not comment on how journalist Olivier Dubois’ freedom was won.

Officials in Niger unexpectedly announced Monday morning (Monday evening AEDT) that the two men had taken a special flight to to the country’s capital but provided no details.

A video grab made on October 18, 2016, shows US aid worker Jeffery Woodke during a ceremony to introduce his NGO in Abalak, two days before he was captured. (AFP via Getty Images)

US 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.

The press organisation Reporters Without Borders, which had long pushed for Dubois’ release, said “we feel joy and immense relief” and thanked French authorities.

“I’m gratified and relieved to see the release of US hostage Jeff Woodke after over six years in captivity,” tweeted Biden administration national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

“The US thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss and love him. I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom.”

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.

The two men 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 all freed together in Mali back in October 2020.

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.

Woodke’s wife, Els Woodke, said at a 2021 news conference in Washington that her husband’s captors had made a multimillion-dollar ransom demand for his release.. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File) (AP)

Woodke’s wife, Els Woodke, said at a 2021 news conference in Washington that her husband’s captors had made a multimillion-dollar ransom demand for his release. She said at the time that she believed her husband was in the custody of a West African affiliate of al-Qaeda known as JNIM and, at the news conference, pleaded with the group’s leader to release him.

In a statement released on Monday through a family spokesman, Els Woodke said she had not yet had the chance to speak 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,” Woodke said.

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.

 Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after it was hit by two hijacjked passenger planes September 11, 2001 in New York City.

How the day that changed the world unfolded

Militants with links to al-Qaeda 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.

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