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US Special Operations forces rescue American kidnapped in Niger

DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

By DANIELLE PAQUETTE | The Washington Post | Published: October 31, 2020

DAKAR, Senegal — U.S. Special Operations on Saturday rescued an American citizen who was kidnapped by armed attackers last week in southern Niger, the Pentagon said.

U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six led the overnight mission in northern Nigeria, where fighters loyal to al-Qaida and the Islamic State have established hideouts.

No service members were injured in the raid.

"This American citizen is safe and is now in the care of the U.S. Department of State," said Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs. "The United States will continue to protect our people and our interests anywhere in the world."

The assailants forced Philipe Nathan Watson, 27, from his farm in remote Massalata on Tuesday, demanding more than $1 million from his family, who are missionaries.

Otherwise, they threatened to sell the captive to extremists, said a U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State have made tens of millions of dollars from kidnappings in recent years, analysts say.

The extremists gained a foothold nearly a decade ago in the Sahel, which lies just south of the Sahara Desert, after the Libyan government collapsed and mercenaries once employed by Moammar Gadhafi streamed into neighboring Mali.

Violence has since spilled into Niger and Burkina Faso, turning once peaceful countryside into conflict zones.

Watson's abduction came two months after Islamic State fighters ambushed a giraffe sanctuary near Niger's capital, Niamey, killing seven aid workers and their local guide.

The nation's military has partnered with French and regional troops to fight rising extremism in the West Africa. More than 5,000 people have died in the unrest this year alone, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks the casualties.

Hundreds of American soldiers are stationed at two bases in Niger, a country of roughly 24 millions. U.S. forces normally provide training and intelligence support in the region. Saturday's operation was extremely rare, the official said.

"Last night, our Country's brave warriors rescued an American hostage in Nigeria," President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday. "Our Nation salutes the courageous soldiers behind the daring nighttime rescue operation and celebrates the safe return of yet another American citizen!"

Another American kidnapped in Niger is still missing.

Jeffrey Rey Woodke, a 59-year-old Christian aid worker, remains in captivity four years after Islamic State militants snatched him in the country's northern desert.

His wife, Els Woodke, urged his captors to free him this spring as the world battled the coronavirus pandemic.

"I would say, please consider Jeff's age and what is going on in the world," Woodke told ABC News. "It's not good to keep captives. Send him home."

Four hostages held by insurgents in Mali were freed last month in apparent exchange for about 200 prisoners suspected of working with the extremist groups.

The government - newly formed after an August coup d'etat - negotiated the release of a prominent Malian politician, a French aid worker and two Italians: a priest and a tourist.

It's unclear if ransoms were paid.