A U.S. citizen kidnapped at gunpoint in the West African nation of Niger this past week has been rescued in a dramatic U.S. military operation in neighboring Nigeria, the defense department confirmed.
Philip Walton, 27, was taken from his farm in Massalata in southern Niger early Tuesday morning by kidnappers armed with AK-47 assault rifles who demanded a ransom from the man’s father.
The Defense Department confirmed on Saturday that the successful operation was undertaken by elite commandos from SEAL Team 6 in a daring early-morning raid.
According to ABC, all but one of the seven captors was killed in the mission.
‘They were all dead before they knew what happened,’ a source told the network.
President Trump tweeted out his praise as the news of the rescue broke. ‘Big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces today. Details to follow!’ he wrote.
Pictured: Soldiers in Niger’s Army drive down a road, ready for battle with Boko Haram – the Islamic State in West Africa. Niger is struggling with a security crisis as groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State carry out an increasing number of attacks (file photo)
The village of Massalata in the Birnin Konni region is 400 kilometres (250 miles) east of the country’s capital Niamey, and close to the Niger-Nigeria border to the south
President Trump tweeted out his praise as the news of the rescue broke Saturday morning
The Defense Department added that no military personnel were injured in the operation and that it had been conducted with the aid of the Niger and Nigerian governments, in an effort to rescue Walton quickly before he could be moved.
‘We had to get him before any potential trade or sale,’ one U.S. official told Fox News.
‘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,’ the Defense department said in a statement.
A U.S. official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the rescue and spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were no solid indications that Walton’s kidnapping was terrorism-related and that it was instead ‘trending toward a kidnapping for ransom’.
Reuters has reported that the perpetrators appeared to be from the Fulani ethnic group, and that they spoke Hausa and some English.
But the official said the U.S. government said it was concerned that the hostage could be passed to another terrorist group, or that the kidnapping could become a prolonged hostage-taking.
The U.S. decided to act quickly before he could be taken by or sold to a group of Islamist militants aligned with either al Qaeda or ISIS.
Walton is now back in Niger and staying at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Niamey, according to the official, who said no ransom was paid.
Niger’s defense minister also confirmed the release to AFP.
‘I confirm the American hostage was released last night,’ minister Issoufou Katambe said, without giving details of the circumstances of the release or the hostage’s whereabouts.
Six gunmen riding motorcycles and armed with AK-47 assault rifles kidnapped Walton, described as the son of a missionary, from his home on the edge of a rural village in neighboring southern Niger on October 26.
The increasing number of attacks in Niger and other West African countries come despite help from French and U.S. forces. Pictured: A US army instructor walks next to Malian soldiers during an anti-terrorism exercise at the Kamboinse in 2018 (file photo)
According to U.S. and Nigerian officials, the assailants had come across Walton in his backyard and pressured him for money. When he only offered them $40 USD, the took him by force.
The kidnappers tied up the rest of Walton’s family so they could not inform authorities, meaning police were not aware that the kidnapping had taken place for about four hours.
Authorities said that the armed men left on three motorcycles and took the 27-year-old over the nearby southern border into Nigeria, leaving his wife, young daughter and brother behind unhurt.
Local officials had said the kidnappers had called the man’s father who lives a half mile away to demand a ransom, though the family did not confirm this.
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.
They raise camels on the land and often walk them into the surrounding bush.
‘They were so exposed that he was abducted without anyone knowing,’ Prefect Lele told Reuters news agency, saying the man had been abducted ‘in a garden on the outskirts of Massalata’ at around 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Niger lies in the heart of the vast Sahel region, which is struggling with a jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The country 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 IS-linked militants killed six French aid workers and their Niger guide while they were visiting a wildlife park east of the capital.
Kidnappings in the region are infrequent but not rare. At least six foreign hostages are being held by Islamist insurgents in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Two of these were taken in Niger, including U.S. aid worker Jeffery Woodke, who has been missing since October 2016, and Joerg Lange, a German aid worker who was taken in April 2018 from a town near the Malian border.
The president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, said in September last year that he had information that Woodke was alive and in good health.
Three Europeans, including 75-year-old French NGO worker Sophie Petronin, were released by their captors in Mali earlier this month under a prisoner swap arranged by the Malian government.
Islamists have collected millions of dollars in ransom payments as a result of kidnappings in recent years. The U.S. government has frequently criticized other countries for paying.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly promoted his administration´s focus on securing the release of American hostages held by militant groups abroad as well as others being detained.
Earlier this month, two Americans held captive by Iranian-backed militants in Yemen were released, along with a third person, in exchange for the return of about 250 of the Houthi rebels from Oman.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Fox News on Saturday morning that the Trump administration had over the years rescued 55 hostages in 24 countries.