French and U.S. hostages released in West Africa after years of captivity

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Jeffrey Woodke and Olivier Dubois

French journalist Olivier Dubois and U.S. aid worker Jeffery Woodke were both presented at a news conference on Monday in Niger’s capital after having been held hostage for years by Islamist militants.

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

“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,” Niger’s interior minister Hamadou Adamou Souley told journalists at the airport, flanked by the two men.

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM, is a West Africa-based affiliate of al Qaeda.

Dubois, who had disappeared from Mali’s northern city of Gao in April 2021, appeared in a video last August pleading to authorities to do everything they could to free him from his Islamist captors.

“It’s huge for me to be here today,” he said on Monday. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I feel tired but I’m well.”

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

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted on Woodke’s release earlier in the day.

“I’m gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over 6 years in captivity,” Sullivan said on Twitter. “The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him.”

The circumstances as to the release of the two men were not immediately clear.

Kidnappings are a relatively common tactic used by Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which have been gaining ground across the Sahel region over the past decade, killing thousands and uprooting over two million people as a consequence.

Those groups have repeatedly been declaring French citizens in West Africa as targets since a 2013 military intervention by France which drove them back a year earlier.