June 20. 2024. 2:27

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French, US hostages released after years of captivity in West Africa

French journalist Olivier Dubois and American aid worker Jeffery Woodke have been released by Islamist militants after being held hostage for years in West Africa.

Mr Dubois was kidnapped in Mali in 2021, while Mr Woodke was kidnapped in neighbouring Niger in 2016.

Mr Dubois had appeared in a video last August urging authorities to do everything they could to free him from his captors.

Some journalists embraced him upon arrival at the briefing at the airport in the capital Niamey, moved by the sight of their peer, who worked for Libération and Le Point magazine.

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“It’s huge for me to be here today,” said Mr Dubois, smiling as he answered questions. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I feel tired but I’m well.”

Woodke, a Christian humanitarian worker, thanked God as well as the Nigerien, US and French authorities for helping with his rescue.

“Greetings to my family,” he said at the briefing.

Flanked by the two men, Niger’s interior minister Hamadou Adamou Souley told journalists: “After several months of efforts, Nigerien authorities obtained the liberation of the two hostages from the hands of [JNIM], an active terrorist group in West Africa and the Sahel.”

JNIM is a West African-based affiliate of al Qaeda.

French President Emmanuel Macron thanked Niger for its help in securing Dubois’ release.

“I have just spoken to Olivier Dubois: he is in good health,” Macron said on Twitter.

The circumstances of the two men’s release were not immediately clear.

A senior US official said there were no direct negotiations with the militant organisation that held Mr Woodke, and no ransom or so-called quid pro quo was part of his release.

[ Unemployment driving young Africans into extremist militant groups, says the UN ]

Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, the official said it was not entirely clear where Mr Woodke was held during his captivity but that he was known to have been in multiple locations and multiple countries.

Mr Woodke was released outside Niger, the senior administration official said.

“I’m gratified & relieved to see the release of US hostage Jeff Woodke after over six years in captivity,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter.

I’m gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over 6 years in captivity. The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him. I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom.

— Jake Sullivan (@JakeSullivan46) March 20, 2023

Kidnappings are a relatively common tactic by Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, which have gained ground across the Sahel region over the last decade, killing thousands and uprooting over two million people in the process.

Those groups have repeatedly declared French citizens in West Africa to be targets since a 2013 military intervention by France drove them back a year earlier.

This is partly because of perceptions that the French government is prepared to pay ransoms to secure their release. France has repeatedly denied this.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023