NIAMEY, Niger: Four weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger, an American aid worker and a French journalist kidnapped and held by Islamist extremists were freed and flown to the country's capital this week.
US officials said no ransom was paid for aid worker Jeffery Woodke, who was held for more than six years, and praised Niger's government for helping secure his release. The French government did not comment on how freedom was won for journalist Olivier Dubois, who was abducted almost two years ago in neighboring Mali.
"I thank God first of all. And after God, I thank the government of Niger, the US government and France. Long live France!" said Woodke, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Dubois told journalists that he was tired but otherwise fine.
"It is amazing for me to be here, to be free. I did not expect it at all," he said.
Blinken, who announced $150 million in direct assistance to the Sahel region during his visit, said of the releases, "I am very pleased we are now seeing that come to fruition today."
In 2021, Woodke's wife Els said she believed her husband was being held by an al-Qaida-linked militant group known as JNIM, which had demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom.
Dubois also was being held by JNIM militants, said Laith Alkhouri, CEO of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory.
This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross also announced that two of its employees were freed in Mali.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said efforts to free Woodke were headed by US military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which worked closely with the French.
"It was a team effort to get him out, and there were no concessions made. There were no swaps here. This was just hard, grueling, deliberate work by diplomats and other experts, directly with the government of Niger to get him home," Kirby said, as reported by Reuters.
Woodke and Debois were the highest-profile foreigners known to be held in the region, and their release was the most significant since a French woman and two Italian men were freed together in Mali in October 2020.