A US aid worker kidnapped in Niger is likely being held by jihadists from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), the country’s interior minister said Sunday.
Jeffery Woodke — the first American to be kidnapped in the west African country – was seized at gunpoint from his home in the central town of Abalak on Friday.
Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told AFP that Niger’s forces had tracked the kidnappers across the border into Mali, towards the region of Menaka which is controlled by the Al-Qaeda linked Mujao.
“He was probably kidnapped by the Mujao or handed over to the Mujao by those who abducted him,” said Bazoum by telephone.
“We have had no contact with the Mujao, which is a terrorist organisation,” he added.
Bazoum’s ministry said earlier that Woodke had been in the Abalak area since 1992 working for JEMED, an aid group helping the local Tuareg community.
A local resident who knew him described him as “perfectly integrated with the population” speaking the Tuaregs’ Tamasheq language fluently as well as Fula and Arabic.
“We tried many times to make him leave the area as he was more exposed than ever, but he refused, saying he wasn’t afraid,” the resident said on condition of anonymity.
Woodke’s kidnappers burst into his home at around 9 pm on Friday, killing a bodyguard and a member of the national guard before seizing the aid worker and heading west.
Mujao has abducted several foreigners in the restive region including in Mali and Algeria.
Northern Mali fell under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in 2012. A French-led military intervention pushed them out, but swathes of the country remain out of government control and awash with armed groups.
Niger’s long, porous borders make it occasionally vulnerable to the armed violence in neighbouring countries.
Last week, 22 of Niger’s soldiers were killed when armed men who had travelled from Mali launched an attack on a refugee camp in the town of Tazalit.
Niger also faces constant attacks in the southeast from Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram.
The Tahoua region, where Friday’s kidnapping took place, neighbours Agadez where the US has a military base which it uses to launch surveillance drones targeting jihadist groups.
A senior security source told AFP the kidnapping came as a surprise, as “the Americans do not pay ransoms”.
In January 2011, two young French people were kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey and were killed shortly afterwards during a rescue attempt.
The previous year, five employees of the French energy firm Areva were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) from a uranium mine in Arlit, north of the country.
Four men were freed in 2013 after the earlier release of the sole female hostage.