ABALAK, Niger (BP) — Gunmen kidnapped an American missionary from his home in central Niger and killed two other people. The incident is apparently the first reported kidnapping of an American in the region.
On Oct. 14, the attackers stormed into Jeffery Woodke’s home in the town of Abalak, killing his guard and housekeeper, Niger’s interior ministry said in a statement the following day. The armed men, driving a white Toyota Hilux pickup truck, took Woodke and headed across the desert toward Mali.
“Our forces are on their trail,” Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum said. “The president of the republic is personally following the situation and our forces are fully mobilized to capture them and put an end to this disastrous affair.”
Woodke, a 55-year-old native of McKinleyville, Calif., has lived in Niger since 1992. He worked with JEMED, a local partner of U.S. non-profit Youth With A Mission (YWAM). The Nigerien charity group helps Tuareg herdsmen who are battling disease, drought and lack of education.
Woodke served as an instructor at The Redwood Coast School of Missions, a ministry run by the Arcata First Baptist Church in Arcata, Calif., which does not cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention. His biography on the mission’s website describes him as having a “passion in providing humanitarian aid to those who are among the poorest in the world, coupled with his desire to see God’s Kingdom advanced in a largely Muslim world.”
The Sahel region of central Africa faces attacks from al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups, Nigerian-based extremists Boko Haram and other criminal gangs. Armed attackers have targeted and kidnapped Europeans, demanding huge sums of money in ransom. An Australian doctor kidnapped in February in Burkina Faso and a Swiss woman kidnapped in Mali both remain in captivity. Woodke’s kidnapping appears to be the first of any American in Niger. In 2009, suspected extremists attempted to kidnap U.S. embassy personnel from a hotel in the town of Tahoua.
“We are aware of reports of the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Niger,” a State Department official said after the abduction. “The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.”