French, US hostages released after years of captivity in West Africa

By and
  • Olivier Dubois and Jeffery Woodke freed
  • Both presented at an airport news conference in Niger
  • Circumstances of their release remain unclear

NIAMEY/WASHINGTON, March 20 (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.

French journalist Olivier Dubois, who has been held hostage in the West Africa Sahel for nearly two years, and U.S. aid worker Jeffery Woodke who was held hostage for over six years listen to Niger's Interior Minister Hamadou Adamou Souley after they were released in Niamey, Niger March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

"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

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Humeyra Pamuk is a senior foreign policy correspondent based in Washington DC. She covers the U.S. State Department, regularly traveling with U.S. Secretary of State. During her 20 years with Reuters, she has had postings in London, Dubai, Cairo and Turkey, covering everything from the Arab Spring and Syria's civil war to numerous Turkish elections and the Kurdish insurgency in the southeast. In 2017, she was won the Knight-Bagehot fellowship program at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MA on European Union studies.