US missionary kidnapped in Africa's Sahel nearly 2 years ago is still alive, says Niger's president

REUTERS/Luc Gnago/FilesA Nigerien soldier stands guard near a camp of the city of Diffa, during the visit of Niger's Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum June 18, 2016.

An American missionary who was abducted by unidentified assailants in October 2016 is still alive, according to Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou.

Jeff Woodke, who has been living in northern Niger since 1992, was taken by a group of armed men from his home in Abalak on the night of Oct. 14, 2016.

There had been no news on Woodke since the kidnapping until last week, when Issoufou claimed that the American missionary and another abducted aid worker from Germany are still alive.

"We have some news; we know they're alive," Issoufou said in an interview with TV channel France24 on June 4. "We continue to create the conditions for their release. Perhaps the contacts that are underway will help to achieve that goal."

Shortly after Woodke's kidnapping, Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum said that the missionary's captors were headed towards Mali. No group has taken credit for Woodke's abduction.

In July 2017, Woodke's wife, Els, appeared in a video pleading for the American missionary's safe return.

Woodke had been working with Jeunesse en Mission Entraide et Developpement (JEMED), a group affiliated with the U.S.-based Youth With a Mission.

His wife's plea for his release came after a coalition of jihadist groups released a video of six foreign captives. The hostages included three foreign missionaries, but there had been no sign of Woodke in the video.

"I am sure that the families of the captives were very encouraged by this message and appreciated the mercy shown by Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen in sending this news and instructions about their loved ones," Els Woodke said in the two-minute video.

"But my husband Jeff is not mentioned, so I did not receive the benefit of the reassurance and directions of how to proceed that the other families did. This has been very hard for me, for Jeff's sons and his father to understand," she continued.

The group that released the video, Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, is active in the Sahel region and is reportedly an affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

Joerg Lange, the missing German aid worker, had been abducted from the town of Ayorou in western Nigeria on April 11. No group has stepped forward to take credit for the abduction, but an anonymous security source said that Lange had been taken to northern Mali.

Issoufou said that he does not have the exact information on the whereabouts of the two hostages, but he asserted that "it is more likely that they are in Mali." 

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