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French journalist, US aid worker kidnapped in Sahel are freed

#French #journalist #aid #worker #kidnapped #Sahel #freed

A French journalist and a US aid worker who had been kidnapped by jihadists in the Sahel have been released, an AFP journalist saw Monday.

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

Dubois, 48, had been kidnapped in Mali in April 2021 while Woodke went missing in Niger in October 2016.

“I feel tired, but I’m fine,” said Dubois, smiling but visibly overwhelmed.

“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.”

Woodke, leaning on a stick, and with white hair, was at his side.

He was seized at gunpoint from his home in Abalak in the Tahoua region of southwestern Niger, about 350 kilometres (220 miles) from Niamey.

The 61-year-old had served as a missionary and humanitarian aid worker in Niger for 32 years, according to a supporters’ website.

Details about why or how the pair were released were not given.

Niger Interior Minister Hamadou Souley, 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.”

In Washington, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tweeted he was “gratified & relieved” at Woodke’s release and expressed his thanks to Niger “for its help in bringing him home”.

The French ambassador in Niamey, Sylvain Itte, thanked the Niger government for having “actively contributed to this happy conclusion”.

– Kidnapped –

Dubois began working as a freelance journalist in Mali in 2015, working for the daily Liberation and the news weekly Le Point.

He himself announced his abduction in a video posted on social networks on May 5, 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-Qaeda.

Dubois was believed to be the only French citizen held hostage by a non-state actor following the release in Mali of aid worker Sophie Petronin in 2020.

Paris considers six citizens officially confirmed to be held behind bars in Iran as hostages of a state.

A second video of Dubois surfaced on social media on March 13, 2022, but there were no details about when it was recorded.

– ‘Nightmare is over’ –

Reacting to his release, his sister Canele Bernard told AFP: “It’s just incredible, it’s something that we’ve been hoping for for two years.”

“The nightmare is over for him and for his family as well. He will be able to get on with living, although it will be hard for him to get over it.”

The watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said there was “immense relief” at Dubois’ release.

“We did get several pieces of reassuring news in recent months and very recently, too — he seemed in good shape but the length of his captivity worried us,” said RSF Secretary Christophe Deloire. 

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.

“Those who abducted him did not kidnap an American, but one of us,” they said in October 2017 in an appeal for his release.

Niger sources at the time said they suspected that an Al-Qaeda-linked group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), had seized him.

– Troubled region –

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 southwestern Niger, a deeply poor nation that was already battling jihadist violence spilling into its southeast from Nigeria.

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

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#French #journalist #aid #worker #kidnapped #Sahel #freed

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