An American held hostage in West Africa for more than six years has been released, in a stunning turn of events that left the former captive "thrilled to be free," officials and his family said Monday.
Aid worker Jeff Woodke, who is from McKinleyville, California, was kidnapped on Oct. 14, 2016, from his home in the northern city of Abalak, Niger.
Woodke, 62, and French journalist Olivier Dubois, whose release was also announced Monday, were spotted together at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
It wasn't immediately clear whether their releases might have been connected.
It's believed that Woodke was taken by an ISIS-connected group before he was turned over to Al Qaeda affiliates in neighboring Mali, his family has said.
"I’m gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over 6 years in captivity," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. "The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him. I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Roger Carstens, the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and other department officials whose yearslong work on Woodke's plight finally came "to fruition today."
"As you know, I have no higher priority or focus than bringing home any unjustly detained American, wherever that is in the world," Blinken told reporters in Washington. "We won’t rest until they’re all home and like Jeffrey reunited with their families."
The now-former hostage's wife, Els Woodke, was at the family home in California when she was told about his release at about 4:30 a.m. PDT, family spokesman Bob Klamser said.
"We didn't have any idea this release was coming," Klamser said.
Els Woodke received a telephone call from her husband in Niger at 8 a.m. in California and they spoke for an hour, according to a family statement.
"He was in great spirits and thrilled to be free," the family said. "He is undergoing medical evaluation and will be working with his family and the U.S. government on plans for his return home and reunion with his family."
Blinken also phoned Els Woodke on Monday and the overjoyed wife expressed her gratitude, the family said.
"Els thanked Secretary Blinken for the call, and also for the work of the entire U.S. government team to bring Jeff home," said the family statement.
"Els has been inundated with expressions of thanks and goodwill from all over the world — from her closest friends and family to people she’s never met but who told her they have been praying for Jeff’s release for these 6 ½ long years."
Shortly after Sullivan's statement on Woodke's release, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that journalist Olivier Dubois had been freed after nearly two years of captivity in Africa.
Dubois went missing in Mali’s northern city of Gao in April 2021.
Macron thanked Niger for helping win Dubois' freedom, but it wasn't immediately clear what role Mali's West African neighbor played in the hostage release.