21 Mar 2023, 09:34

French journalist, US aid worker kidnapped in Sahel are freed

NIAMEY, March 21, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - A French journalist kidnapped nearly two years ago by jihadists in the Sahel and a US aid worker held by them for six years arrived in the Niger capital Niamey on Monday after being released.

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

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.

Sources familiar with the matter said Dubois was expected back in Paris on Tuesday.

"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 thanked the "Nigerien, American and French governments," adding: "Vive la France."

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a statement released after he had spoken to Dubois, expressed his "huge relief" and said the journalist would soon be back in France.

US President Joe Biden welcomed the freeing of Woodke and thanked the government of Niger, calling it "a critical partner in helping to secure his release."

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

Niger Interior Minister Hamadou Souley, who was at Niamey airport, said "the hostages were picked up safe and sound by the Nigerien authorities before being handed over to the French and American authorities."

- 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 Malian 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.

- 'The 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. 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, while Liberation spoke of its "immense joy".

Ousmane Diallo, Sahel researcher at Amnesty, said that the release of the hostages is "a great symbolic victory for Niger".

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

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.

Journalists and humanitarian workers face heightened risks.

Two International Committee of the Red Cross employees kidnapped in Mali earlier this year were released on Sunday.

Niger is an important Western ally in the troubled region, hosting a French military base and a US drone base.

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