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Journalist and aid worker freed in Mali after years as hostages

French journalist Olivier Dubois arrives at the VIP lounge at the airport in Niamey, Niger, Monday March 20, 2023
French journalist Olivier Dubois arrives at the VIP lounge at the airport in Niamey, Niger, Monday March 20, 2023 Copyright Judith Besnard/Copyright 2023 The AP
Copyright Judith Besnard/Copyright 2023 The AP
By AFP
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French journalist Olivier Dubois and US aid worker Jeffery Woodke have been freed after spending years as hostages of a jihadi group in Mali

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A French journalist held hostage by Islamic extremists for nearly two years in Mali was released on Monday, according to the French president and media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. 

Olivier Dubois was kidnapped in April 2021 from northern Mali, a region of the country wracked by jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted Monday: “Olivier Dubois is free” but he didn't give any more details such as the conditions of Dubois’ release, including whether it involved a ransom, were not disclosed.

“We feel joy and immense relief,” Reporters Without Borders, also known by its French acronym RSF, said in a statement.

It thanked French authorities for “having implemented the necessary means to obtain his release,” without elaborating.

Aid worker Jeffery Woodke also released

Dubois' release came the same day that an American aid worker was also freed. 

US officials said no ransom had been paid for Jeffery Woodke, who was held for more than six years, and they praised Niger’s government for helping secure his release.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region last week where he announced $150 million in direct assistance to the Sahel region.

“I’m very pleased we are now seeing that come to fruition today," Blinken said, thanking his team, and Niger, for their efforts. “We won’t rest until they’re all home, like Jeffery, reunited with their families.”

Els Woodke released a statement through a family spokesman saying that she had not yet spoken with her husband, but had been told he was in good condition.

Woodke had been kidnapped from his home in Abalak, Niger, in October 2016 by men who ambushed and killed his guards and forced him at gunpoint into their truck, where he was driven north toward Mali’s border.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said efforts to free Woodke were spearheaded by the US military, law enforcement and intelligence community, working closely with the French government.

Both were greeted by well-wishers

Officials in Niger unexpectedly announced Monday morning that the two men had taken a special flight to the country's capital but provided no details. US officials said that the American hostage was not freed in Niger but in the surrounding region that includes Mali, where Dubois was abducted in 2021.

Both appeared to be physically well when they met briefly with a small group of journalists in Niamey. Dubois smiled broadly as he was greeted by well-wishers, saying he was tired but otherwise fine.

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“It’s amazing for me to be here, to be free,” the 48-year-old journalist said. “I didn’t expect it at all. I would like to pay tribute to Niger, and to its knowledge of these types of delicate missions. And to pay tribute to France and to all those who made it possible to be here today.”

Woodke, who wore his long grey hair in a ponytail and used a walking stick, did not speak to journalists.

Celebrations

Also, on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that two of its employees were freed in Mali. The organization would not disclose the employees’ identities or the circumstances of the abduction, and it could not be confirmed if there was any connection to the other hostages whose release was announced the same day.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said efforts to free Woodke were spearheaded by the U.S. military, law enforcement and intelligence community, working closely with the French government.

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Woodke and Debois were the highest-profile foreigners known to be held in the region, and their release was the largest since a French woman and two Italian men were freed together in Mali back in October 2020.

The press organization Reporters Without Borders, which had long pushed for Dubois’ release, also celebrated Monday.

“We feel joy and immense relief,” the group said, thanking French authorities.

Hostages for ransom

Groups have long abducted hostages for ransom in the Sahel, the vast, semi-arid expanse below the Sahara Desert. Previously released captives have described being moved frequently from site to site in harrowing conditions amid sweltering temperatures. The extremists aim to use millions in ransom to fund their jihadi operations, though not all countries engage in payment negotiations.

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Last year an Italian couple and their child were abducted along with a household employee in southern Mali. Other hostages taken in West Africa include Ken Elliott, an Australian doctor abducted in 2016 and Romanian citizen Julian Ghergut, seized near a mining site in 2015.

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