American troops on Saturday morning rescued an American citizen taken hostage last week in Niger, according to a statement from the Pentagon.
“U.S. forces conducted a hostage rescue operation during the early hours of 31 October in Northern Nigeria to recover an American citizen held hostage by a group of armed men,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman in a media release. “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.”
Niger and Nigeria share a long border. More than three-fourths of Niger, which is north of Nigeria, is covered by the Sahara Desert, and the Sahel, a region of dry grasslands and savannas that extends across Africa just south of the desert, has become a hotbed of Islamic militants. Niger and northern Nigeria are both predominantly Muslim.
The only place in the world where fighters linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are cooperating is in West Africa’s sprawling Sahel region, giving the extremists greater depth as they push into new areas, according to the commander of the U.S. military’s special forces in Africa.
The hostage, Philipe Nathan Walton, was taken from his farm in Massalata in southern Niger early Tuesday morning by armed kidnappers who demanded a ransom from the man’s father.
The mission was undertaken by elite commandos as part of a major effort to free Walton, 27, before his abductors could get far after taking him captive in Niger on Oct. 26, counterterrorism officials told ABC News.
Niger has faced a growing number of attacks by extremists linked to both the Islamic State group and to al-Qaida. The kidnapping comes two months after ISIS-linked militants killed six French aid workers and their Niger guide while they were visiting a wildlife park east of the capital.
On Oct. 4, 2017, militants from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara ambushed Nigerien and U.S. soldiers outside the village of Tongo Tongo. Four Green Berets and five Nigeriens were killed and eight Nigeriens and two U.S. soldiers, including the team commander, were wounded.
Hoffman would not comment on anything beyond his initial statement.
According to ABC News:
The operation involved the governments of the U.S., Niger and Nigeria working together to rescue Walton quickly, sources said. The elite SEAL Team Six carried out the rescue mission and killed all but one of the captors, according to officials with direct knowledge about the operation.
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U.S. and Nigerien officials had said that Walton was kidnapped from his backyard last Monday after assailants asked him for money. But he only offered $40 and was then taken away by force, according to sources in Niger.
Walton lives with his wife and young daughter on a farm near Massalata, a small village close to the border with Nigeria.
Nigerien and American officials told ABC News that they believed the captors were from an armed group from Nigeria and that it was not considered terror-related. But hostages are often sold to terrorist groups.
Concern grew quickly after the kidnapping that an opportunity to rescue Walton could become much more dangerous if he was taken by or sold to a group of Islamist militants aligned with either al-Qaida or ISIS and American special operations commanders felt they needed to act swiftly before that could occur, said one counterterrorism official briefed on the hostage recovery operations.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.