US commandos have rescued missionary Philip Walton in Nigeria, just a few days after he was abducted by gunmen in the south of neighbouring Niger and taken across the border.
Walton was abducted last Tuesday morning on the outskirts of Massalata, a village about 10 kilometres from the border with Nigeria.
In a dramatic predawn raid on Saturday, commandos from the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 rescued the 27-year-old after they tracked his abductors' phones to a hide-out in neighbouring northern Nigeria, according to U.S. officials.
Walton was released unharmed and no American military personnel were injured during the operation, chief Pentagon spokesperson, Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement on Saturday.
All but one of the captors were killed during the high-precision raid, U.S. officials said.
President Donald Trump hailed the rescue operation in a tweet as a “big win".
He also tweeted that “courageous soldiers” had pulled off a “daring nighttime rescue operation” and told reporters that “it was something that had to get done because they were playing with American citizens".
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the rescue by “some of our bravest and most skilled warriors” underscores the U.S. commitment “to the safe return of all U.S. citizens taken captive".
The U.S., Niger and Nigeria governments worked together to secure Walton’s quick release before his abductors had time to hand him over to terrorist groups operating in the area.
"We appreciate the support of our international partners in conducting this operation," Hoffman said.
A 'lucky' escape
Walton, 27, 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, working as a missionary.
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.
Eric Oehlerich, a consultant and retired Navy SEAL, told ABC News that Walton was "lucky" that such a mission was possible so quickly after he was abducted, when others have been held for 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.
U.S. 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 the Sahel.
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.
In August, six French aid workers and two Niger citizens were killed in the Koure wildlife reserve west of Niamey.
Both kidnappings were claimed by the Islamic State armed group.
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 October 2016 and is believed to be in neighbouring Mali now.
Three Europeans, including 75-year-old French charity worker Sophie Petronin, were released along with Malian opposition politician Soumaila Cissé by their captors in Mali earlier this month under a prisoner swap arranged by the Malian government which saw some 200 jihadists go free.
One of the jihadists freed in the Petronin swap, but arrested in Algeria midweek, has claimed a multimillion euro 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. It was, however, impossible to verify his claim.