US aid worker kidnapped, guards killed in Niger

Gunmen stormed the house of a longtime American aid worker in Niger, killing two people before fleeing with the man towards the border with Mali, authorities said Saturday.

The kidnapping took place on Friday evening in the town of Abalak in north-central Niger, according to FRANCE 24’s sister station Radio France Internationale (RFI).

RFI said the assailants arrived around 9pm in a 4×4 vehicle, accompanied by a motorbike.

It only took them about 10 minutes to kidnap the American, RFI reported, who was known locally as “Jeff”.

He had been working in the Sahel region for the American evangelical organisation Youth with a Mission since the 1990s.

His security guard, as well as a member of the Nigerian National Guard, were killed during the kidnapping.

It is believed to be the first time an American citizen has been abducted in the vast Sahel region, where al Qaeda and criminal gangs have targeted French nationals and other Europeans for more than a decade, demanding millions of dollars for their release.

“We are aware of reports of the kidnapping of a US citizen in Niger,” a State Department official said after the abduction late Friday. “The US Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though al Qaeda-linked militants have abducted foreigners in Niger and brought them to northern Mali before.

“These criminals are currently en route towards Mali and our forces are pursuing them,” the interior ministry said in its statement. “The president of the republic is personally following the situation and our forces are fully mobilised to capture them and put an end to this disastrous affair.”

Gov. Daouda Maiga, governor of Mali’s Menaka region bordering Niger, said authorities there were alerted to be on the lookout for a white Toyota Hilux, a vehicle often used by jihadists in the region.

The government of Niger said in a news release Saturday that the American had lived there since 1992. RFI reported that he spoke Tamachek and was well integrated with the community. However, the Sahel region is known to be frequented by both Islamist groups and drug traffickers.

Earlier this week, 22 soldiers were killed in a refugee camp in the same north-central region of Tahoua.

A number of foreigners remain hostage in the Sahel region, including a Swiss woman and a South African-British dual national, both seized in separate attacks in Timbuktu, Mali. In Burkina Faso, an Australian doctor and a Romanian man are being held captive.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2016-10-15

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