US citizen freed after being abducted by gunmen in Niger

·2-min read

An American citizen kidnapped by gunmen in Niger earlier this week has been freed in a rescue operation by US forces, the Pentagon confirmed Saturday.

The hostage, Philip Walton, described as the son of a missionary living in Niger, was abducted Monday night on the outskirts of Massalata, a village in Niger near the Nigerian border. He had been taken into Nigeria where US forces freed him, the Pentagon said.

"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.

Niger’s defence minister Issoufou Katambé told AFP that the hostage had been released without giving further details of the circumstances of the release or the hostage’s whereabouts. However the Pentagon said the hostage was now safe and in the care of the US State Department.

President Donald Trump hailed the rescue operation. "Big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces today. Details to follow!," he tweeted.

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.

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 Pétronin, were released by their captors in Mali earlier this month under a prisoner swap arranged by the Malian government.

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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)