American troops on Saturday morning rescued an American citizen taken hostage last week in Niger, according to a statement from the Pentagon. An American citizen abducted last week in Niger has been rescued during a high-risk U.S. military raid in neighboring Nigeria, early Saturday. The mission was undertaken by elite commandos as part of a major effort to free the U.S. citizen, Philip Walton, 27, before his abductors could get far after taking him captive in Niger on Oct. 26. U.S. officials on Saturday confirmed that the early morning rescue by special operations forces took place in northern Nigeria, which borders Niger.”This American citizen is safe and is now in the care of the U.S. Department of State. No U.S military personnel were injured during the operation,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “We appreciate the support of our international partners in conducting this operation. The United States will continue to protect our people and our interests anywhere in the world,” he added.
National Counterterrorism Center Director Chris Miller touted the successful mission Saturday as a warning to armed groups in the region who may consider targeting U.S. citizens.“This is a clear message to all criminal and terrorist-related groups everywhere that the United States Government’s reach is infinite and we will do everything within our great capabilities to bring our citizens home,” he said.
Watson’s abduction came two months after Islamic State fighters ambushed a giraffe sanctuary near Niger’s capital, Niamey, killing seven aid workers and their local guide.The assailants forced Philip Nathan Watson, 27, from his farm in remote Massalata on Tuesday, demanding more than $1 million from his family members, who are missionaries.Otherwise, they threatened to sell the captive to extremists, said a U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.Groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have made tens of millions of dollars from kidnappings in recent years, analysts say.The extremists gained a foothold nearly a decade ago in the Sahel, which lies just south of the Sahara Desert, after the Libyan government collapsed and mercenaries once employed by Moammar Gaddafi streamed into neighboring Mali.
Hundreds of American soldiers are stationed at two bases in Niger, a country of roughly 24 million. U.S. forces normally provide training and intelligence support in the region. Saturday’s operation was extremely rare, the official said.
According to U.S. officials, the rescue started just after midnight local time early Saturday when about 30 Navy commandos parachuted into the remote area where the kidnappers had taken Mr. Walton. Members of the rescue team hiked about three miles until they came upon the captors’ small encampment in a copse of scrubland bushes and trees. In the brief but intense firefight that ensued, all but one of the half-dozen or so kidnappers were killed. One captor escaped into the night. Mr. Walton was not harmed in the gun battle, and he walked out to a makeshift landing zone, where a U.S. helicopter whisked him to safety.
Another American kidnapped in Niger is still missing. Jeffrey Rey Woodke, a 59-year-old Christian aid worker, remains in captivity four years after Islamic State militants snatched him in the country’s northern desert.Mr. Walton’s kidnapping was just the latest spasm of violence in Africa’s Sahel region.