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American hostage freed from captivity in Africa

Jeffery Woodke, a Christian aid worker, was abducted in Niger in 2016

American aid worker Jeffery Woodke, center, and French journalist Olivier Dubois, left, are seen at the airport in Niamey, Niger, on Monday after their release from captivity. (Judith Besnard/AP)
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An American aid worker who was taken hostage by militants in West Africa more than six years ago has been freed, the Biden administration said Monday, but officials shared little about his years in captivity or the identity of the group that held him.

Jeffery Woodke, a Christian aid worker, was abducted in Niger in 2016, and it is believed that he was later taken to Mali. He is undergoing a medical evaluation in Niamey, the capital of Niger, and then will return home to be reunited with his family, said Bob Klamer, a spokesman for the Woodke family.

President Biden praised the release and told reporters that the United States “will continue our work to bring home all Americans held hostage or unjustly detained.” White House spokesman John Kirby said the effort to locate and recover Woodke was a “team effort” involving U.S. military officials, diplomats, federal law enforcement and the intelligence community working with the French government.

“This was just hard, grueling, deliberate work by diplomats and other experts directly with the government of Niger to get him home,” Kirby told reporters.

Woodke’s wife, Els Woodke, spoke to her husband Monday. “He was in great spirits and thrilled to be free,” she said. She expressed her “profound thanks to the many people in governments and others around the world who have worked so hard to see this result.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken just returned from Niger on Friday, in the first visit to the West African country by a sitting U.S. secretary of state. Blinken reaffirmed the United States’ interest in securing Woodke’s release, said a senior administration official, but no ransom or concessions were given. No direct negotiations were held between the U.S. government and the group that held him, said the official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity surrounding the long-sought release.

The official declined to identify the group that held Woodke but noted that his capture happened as a result of an “overlapping and intersecting network in that part of West Africa — operating in an area that includes Mali and Burkina Faso — who see kidnapping and hostage-taking as part of their business model, frankly, and as a source of revenue and support.”

In October 2016, armed men appeared at Woodke’s home in Abalak, killing his guards and abducting him, according to his family. The California native had spent about three decades living part- or full-time in Niger, where his work included missionary activity and the construction of wells and schools, his wife said.

In her statement, she praised “God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome.” She said U.S. officials informed her Monday morning that her husband had been freed.

In 2021, Els Woodke said she believed her husband had initially been held by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and that his transfer occurred after the death of that group’s leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, in a French military operation. The group is also believed to have been involved in an attack that resulted in the deaths of four American troops in 2017.

In her statement Monday, Els Woodke said the governments of Niger and the United States “have long suspected that jihadists have held Jeff in the Sahel since then.”

Olivier Dubois, a French journalist who was abducted by Islamist militants in Mali in April 2021, was also released Monday in Niger, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom watchdog. Dubois was kidnapped in the northeastern city of Gao by an al-Qaeda-linked affiliate known as Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) while he was reporting. Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, said he felt “immense relief” after the release of Dubois, who had been held for 711 days.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that he spoke with Dubois after his release. “He is in good health,” Macron said in a statement. “Immense relief for the Nation, for his relatives and fellow journalists. Great gratitude to Niger for this release.”

News of Woodke’s release was reported earlier by the New York Times.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Missy Ryan in Washington, and Rachel Chason in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.