US forces free American hostage in Nigeria

·3 min read
The hostage, Philip Walton, described as the son of a missionary living in Niger, was abducted Monday night on the outskirts of Massalata.
The hostage, Philip Walton, described as the son of a missionary living in Niger, was abducted Monday night on the outskirts of Massalata.

US military forces rescued an American citizen in Nigeria, the Pentagon said on Saturday, days after he was kidnapped by gunmen in the south of neighbouring Niger and apparently taken across the border.

The hostage, Philip Walton, was abducted Monday night on the outskirts of Massalata, a village about 10 kilometres (six miles) from the border with Nigeria.

Walton is safe and in the care of the US State Department, the Pentagon said in a statement. US forces did not suffer any casualties in the rescue operation, it added.

"The United States is committed to the safe return of all US citizens taken captive," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a separate statement.

"We delivered on that commitment late last night in Nigeria, where some of our bravest and most skilled warriors rescued a US citizen," he said.

President Donald Trump hailed the rescue operation.

"Big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces today. Details to follow!," he tweeted.

Niger's Defence Minister Issoufou Katambe had earlier confirmed the hostage release to AFP without giving details about how he had been freed.

Local officials had said this week that the kidnappers had called the man's father to demand a ransom, though the family did not confirm this.

Walton had been living in Massalata with his wife and child for two years, according to his father, who himself has been in Niger for nearly 30 years.

Niger lies in the heart of the vast Sahel region, which is struggling with a jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.

US forces have two drone bases in Agadez and Dirkou, in northern Niger. Their aircraft provide significant support to the French anti-jihadist Barkhane force. 

In October 2017, four American Special Forces soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tongo Tongo, near Mali, in southwestern Niger. 

The attack was claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

Several Westerners are currently being held hostage in the region, including American aid worker Jeffery Woodke, who was kidnapped in the central town of Abalak in 2016 and is believed to be in neighbouring Mali now.

Three Europeans, including 75-year-old French charity worker Sophie Petronin, were released by their captors in Mali earlier this month under a prisoner swap arranged by the Malian government which saw some 200 jihadists go free.

In August, six French aid workers and two Niger citizens were killed in the Koure wildlife reserve west of Niamey, in an attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State group.

In a further development, one of the jihadists freed in the Petronin swap but arrested in Algeria in midweek has claimed a multimillion euro (dollar) ransom was paid to broker that deal.

"First, I heard talk of an exchange of 207 prisoners and (a ransom of  10 million euros), then heard the amount was 30 million euros," Mustapha Derrar said in a video broadcast Saturday on Algerian state television seen by AFP.

Derrar said there had been talks between France -- which has denied involvement in or knowledge of any ransom payment -- and Sahel region jihadist leader Iyad Ag Ghali and Mali in the lead-up to the swap, though it was impossible to verify his claim.

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