French journalist, US aid worker freed in West Africa

Reporter Olivier Dubois had been held by armed groups since 2021, while Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped in 2016.

French journalist Olivier Dubois and US aid worker Jefferey Woodke upon their release from captivity during a news conference in Niger
French journalist Olivier Dubois (left) and US aid worker Jeffery Woodke (second from right) listen to Niger's Interior Minister Hamadou Adamou Souley after they were released in Niamey, Niger on March 20, 2023 [Stringer/Reuters]

A French journalist and an American aid worker who were kidnapped by armed groups in the Sahel region of Africa have been freed after years in captivity, authorities said.

Olivier Dubois, a reporter with France-based publications Liberation and Le Point, and Jeffery Woodke, a Christian humanitarian worker from the United States, arrived at the airport in Niamey in Niger on Monday.

“It’s huge for me to be here today,” said Dubois, smiling as he answered questions and was greeted by fellow journalists and other well-wishers.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all. I feel tired but I’m well,” he said.

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

During the briefing in Niamey, Woodke thanked God as well as the Nigerien, US and French authorities for helping with his rescue. “Greetings to my family,” he said.

Flanked by the two men, Niger’s Interior Minister Hamadou Adamou Souley told reporters that the pair’s release came “after several months of efforts” by the Nigerien authorities to free them “from the hands of [JNIM]”, a West Africa-based affiliate of al-Qaeda.

The release came just days after the US’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visited Niger in a bid to boost ties to the West African nation, which has emerged as a key partner in the fight against armed groups in the Sahel.

It was the first visit to Niger by a secretary of state in US history.

“I’m very pleased we are now seeing that come to fruition today,” Blinken said, thanking his team, and Niger, for their efforts. “We won’t rest until they’re all home, like Jeffery reunited with their families.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also thanked Niger for its help in bringing Woodke home. “I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter.

The circumstances of the two men’s release were not immediately clear.

A senior US official said there were no direct negotiations with the armed group 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.

John Kirby, a White House spokesman, also told reporters on Monday afternoon that “there were no concessions made” to secure Woodke’s release.

‘Immense relief’

The US aid worker’s wife, Els Woodke, released a statement through a family spokesman saying she had not yet spoken with her husband but had been told he was in good condition.

“She praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron thanked Niger for its help in securing Dubois’s release, which Macron said had brought significant relief to the journalist’s loved ones, as well as the entire country.

“I have just spoken to Olivier Dubois: he is good health,” he said on Twitter.

Translation: I have just spoken to Olivier Dubois: he is in good health. Immense relief for the Nation, his loved ones and his fellow journalists. Great gratitude to Niger for this release.

Dubois was the first French national to be taken hostage by rebels in Mali since French aid worker Sophie Petronin was freed in October 2020. She had been abducted near Gao in the country’s northeast in late 2016.

Scores of rebel fighters were released in a 2020 prisoner swap deal that liberated Petronin, a senior Malian politician, and two Italian citizens.

Dubois had appeared in a video in May 2022, appealing to authorities to do everything they could to free him from the armed groups holding him.

“We are deeply relieved and happy about this outcome,” Dov Alfon, director of the Liberation newspaper, said on Monday.

The press organisation Reporters Without Borders, which had long pushed for Dubois’s release, said that “we feel joy and immense relief”, and thanked French authorities.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies