Jeffery Woodke, a U.S. aid worker who has lived and worked in northern Niger for up to two decades, has been kidnapped by gunmen who also killed his guards and house help on Friday.
Niger’s interior ministry released a statement on Saturday announcing that a U.S. aid worker had been kidnapped by gunmen in Abalak. The kidnappers, who were last seen in a Toyota pickup truck, are reportedly heading towards Mali.
Reuters identified the U.S. aid worker who has been kidnapped as Jeffery Woodke. Woodke reportedly works for a non-government organization called JEMED, which has been helping Tuareg pastoralists in the region since the 1990s.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Niger have both confirmed the news that a U.S. aid worker has been kidnapped. This is reportedly the first time that a U.S. citizen has been abducted in Niger. The U.S. embassy cautioned U.S. citizens on Saturday that they stand a risk of being kidnapped in the Sahel country as unrest in neighboring countries continues to spill into Niger.
Jeffery Woodke is from McKinleyville, California, according to the Times-Standard. He has worked with the Redwood Coast School of Missions for over 20 years.
Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told AFP that a military operation has been launched to find the kidnappers who he described as “jihadists or bandits.” Bazoum expressed the opinion that the kidnappers are heading to Mali to sell Woodke to Islamic extremists.
It is unclear why Woodke was targeted by the kidnappers. A resident, who spoke to AFP anonymously, said that Woodke had refused to leave the area despite the fact that “he was more exposed than ever.”
The kidnappers barged into Woodke’s home at about 9 p.m. on Friday, according to Niger’s interior ministry. The Mayor of Abalak, Ahmed Dilo, told Reuters that gunmen on a motorbike had attacked and killed Woodke’s guard before the kidnappers in the Toyota Hilux truck arrived.
Niger’s interior ministry revealed that one of the guards killed at Woodke’s home was part of the National Guard.
A source told CNN anonymously that the kidnappers forced Woodke to strip down to his underwear before whisking him away in their vehicle. This is thought to have been done to prevent Woodke from carrying any electronic device that could track his whereabouts.
While there have been several cases of foreigners being kidnapped for ransom in Mali and Nigeria, it is not the same in Niger. However, it appears that the violence in neighboring countries is creeping into Niger. Last week, 22 Nigerien soldiers were killed by unknown gunmen who attacked their post at a security camp for refugees from Mali, Al Jazeera reported.
Niger shares borders with Nigeria and Mali. Both countries have been struggling to contain Islamic extremists. The situation has forced several western countries – including the U.S. – to issue travel warnings to their citizens heading to Niger.
A U.S. travel warning issued at the beginning of this year said that some NGOs and foreign companies operating in the country have vacated the country due to security concerns. The statement, which warns U.S. citizens not to visit public places often frequented by Westerners, goes on to caution travelers to only stay in hotels that are under the protection of Nigerien security officers.
“U.S. citizens currently in or traveling to Niger should evaluate their personal security situation. The U.S. Embassy has very limited capability to assist U.S. citizens in remote or rural areas,” the travel advisory said.
Jeffery Woodke’s safety is said to be particularly at risk since the American government is unlikely to give in to any demands for ransom. While an AFP source claims that the terrorists have already entered into Mali, the government is yet to confirm this or announce the involvement of Malian security agencies in the case.
[Featured Image by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Image]