US forces free American hostage kidnapped in Niger

Philip Walton, a missionary, was rescued from northern Nigeria early on Saturday, Pentagon says

U.S. Central Command Commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, right, and Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman, left, take questions from reporters, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at a joint press briefing at the Pentagon on the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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American forces rescued a US hostage from northern Nigeria on Saturday, the Pentagon said.

"This American citizen is safe and is now in the care of the US Department of State," Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesman, said.

No US military personnel were injured during the operation, he said

The Pentagon did not identify the rescued person, but ABC News reported on October 28 that Philip Walton, 27, a missionary, was abducted from his home in a southern Niger village, close to the border with Nigeria.

President Donald Trump touted the successful rescue mission on Twitter with only three days left before the last day of voting in the US elections on November 3.

“Our nation salutes the courageous soldiers behind the daring nighttime rescue operation and celebrates the safe return of yet another American citizen,” Mr Trump wrote.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also quick to tout the win for the Trump administration.

“Thanks to the extraordinary courage and capabilities of our military, the support of our intelligence professionals and our diplomatic efforts, the hostage will be reunited with his family,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement.

ABC reported that Mr Walton’s abductors were part of a small Nigerian armed militia, albeit not a terrorist group. However, counterterrorism officials feared that his captors could have sold him to a terrorist organisation aligned with either Al Qaeda or ISIS.

Niger Defence Minister Issoufou Katambe said Mr Walton was abducted on Monday night on the outskirts of Massalata, about 10 kilometres from the border with Nigeria.

Local officials had said this week that the kidnappers called the man's father to demand a ransom, although the family did not confirm this.

Mr 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 an extremist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Several westerners are 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 Petronin, were released by their captors in Mali in October 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 ISIS.