French, US hostages released after years of captivity in West Africa
By Boureima Balima and Humeyra Pamuk
NIAMEY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -French journalist Olivier Dubois was hugged by emotional reporters at a briefing in Niger on Monday announcing the release of him and U.S. aid worker Jeffery Woodke who had been held hostage in West Africa for years by Islamist militants.
Dubois was kidnapped in Mali in 2021, while Woodke was kidnapped in neighbouring Niger in 2016.
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 Liberation and Le Point magazine.
"It's huge for me to be here today," said 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, U.S. 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 Africa-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 good health," Macron said on Twitter.
The circumstances of the two men's release were not immediately clear.
A senior U.S. official said there were no direct negotiations with the militant organisation that held Woodke, and no ransom or so-called quid pro quo was part of his release.
Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, the official said it was not entirely clear where Woodke was held during his captivity but that he was known to have been in multiple locations and multiple countries.
Woodke was released outside of Niger, the senior administration official said, adding that Niger was part of efforts that helped free a second U.S. citizen held by the same network.
A U.S. State Department official identified that hostage as American Catholic nun Suellen Tennyson, kidnapped in northern Burkina Faso in April last year and freed in August.
"I'm gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over 6 years in captivity," White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter. "The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him."
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 past 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.
(Reporting by Boureima Balima in Niamey; Lucien Libert, Elizabeth Pineau and John Irish in Paris; Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Steve Holland, Katharine Jackson and Ismail Shakil in Washington; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Bate Felix, Nick Macfie and Alison Williams)