Wife of American hostage in Africa reveals ransom demand for kidnappers
Washington — The wife of an American humanitarian worker kidnapped in Niger five years ago said on Wednesday that her husband’s kidnappers demanded a ransom of millions of dollars, but that US government “restrictions” have hampered her ability to raise the money.
Else Woodkey said she believed her husband, Jeff Woodkey, was being held by the West African branch of al-Qaeda known as Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), and that she had received information indicating that he was alive until the summer. She said the group’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, has a history of negotiating the release of the hostages, and she directly appealed to him on Wednesday to release her husband.
“You are the only one who has the power to make it happen. releasing Jeff requires compassion and compassion, but these are the traits of a strong and courageous leader,” Woodkey said in remarks addressed to Ghali in English and French.
In her most comprehensive remarks yet on her husband’s plight, she also expressed her dissatisfaction with aspects of the US government’s approach. She said she was told repeatedly over the years that if she disclosed details about her husband’s case, she would be prevented from receiving additional information.
She also said the kidnappers demanded a ransom of millions of dollars, although the exact amounts were inconsistent and US officials did not facilitate her efforts to pay.
“It has also imposed so many restrictions imposed by the United States government that any serious attempt at ransom is virtually prohibited,” she said.
She said the restrictions relate to the fact that “other governments are involved, although she declined to go into details.”
The US government discourages ransom payments in hostage cases, but it has also made clear that prosecutors are not interested in prosecuting relatives who choose to make such payments. In response to Woodkey’s comments, a US official said that although US policy is to deny concessions to the hostage-takers, this position “does not prevent the US government from assisting the hostage families with special efforts to reach out to the hostage-takers.”
Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Abalek, Niger, in October 2016 by men who ambushed and killed his guards and forced him at gunpoint into their truck, where he was driven north towards the Mali border. Although he is believed to have been kidnapped by a West African branch of the Islamic State, Woodke is now believed to be in the vast Sahel region of Africa and is being held by JNIM, according to his wife.
Els Woodke urged the Malian government to make the release of her husband and other hostages held by JNIM a precondition for negotiations with the group. She also urged Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to keep his promise in February that he would “not take any options off the table” in her husband’s case.
She said that based on information she received from the government and “other sources,” she believes Jeff Woodkey was alive at least this summer.
In addition, she added that he is well known in the area.
“If he had died, I am sure that would not have gone unnoticed. This news would have been passed on. To me this is a stronger indication” that he was still alive.
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