Niger town 'furious and shocked' by kidnapping of US aid worker Jeffery Woodke

Two members of Niger's security forces standing guard outside the home of an US aid worker, Jeffery Woodke, who was kidnapped on Oct 14 by armed men in Abalak.
Two members of Niger's security forces standing guard outside the home of an US aid worker, Jeffery Woodke, who was kidnapped on Oct 14 by armed men in Abalak. PHOTO: AFP

ABALAK, NIGER (AFP) - For people living in the small city of Abalak in central Niger, the abduction of a longtime United States aid worker over a week ago has left them angry and anxious.

Mr Jeffery Woodke was no stranger here. "We are furious and shocked by this kidnapping," said Mr Ibrahim Adamou, a 16-year-old student, as he and neighbours of Mr Woodke recalled the evening of Oct 14 when the American was seized at gunpoint from his home.

"Like every night, he was drinking tea" in the courtyard of his house, along with his guards, when "two armed men in turbans" stormed in and grabbed him, killing his bodyguard and a member of the national guard.

Mr Woodke, reportedly in his 50s, "struggled" to break free from his captors.

"We cried and shouted for help but the gunmen just threw him into their vehicle," said Aicha, one of the neighbours.

A local official said they drove off "with no headlights on" taking the road that leads to Mali, where investigators have since tracked the kidnappers and believe Mr Woodke is being held by the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

A shopkeeper Mohamed said when he thought of Mr Woodke, "I hear his laughter in my head".

The American had become one of them after running the aid group JEMET there since 1992, helping the local Tuareg community. He speaks their language Tamasheq fluently as well as Fula and Arabic.

Jeff, as they call him, could be seen around town in a turban, leather sandals and a big boubou - a flowing African tunic.

"He was with us through all the hardest times", said Abalak's mayor Ahmed Dilou - the times of a food crisis, the droughts, the floods.

The Friday night of Jeff's abduction "was such a devastating shock that the whole city cried", he said.

But apparently Mr Woodke was not concerned about living in this unstable Tahoua region of Niger, close to the borders of Mali and Algeria. Western embassies have issued strong warnings to their nationals against venturing there.

A Nigerien official said he had "tried everything" to convince the American to leave the area but "he refused, insisting that he was not afraid".

Investigators have sealed off Mr Woodke's house. In the courtyard shaded by thorn trees, some bricks can be seen piled up next to sacks of cement.

"He was rebuilding a wall that had collapsed after some heavy rains," explained Aicha.

Still, despite Mr Woodke's popularity with the townspeople, a regional lawmaker said he believed the kidnappers "were helped by some locals".

According to Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, who visited Abalak, around 350km north-east of the capital Niamey, the kidnappers "went straight to his home, guided by a motorcyclist".

Last Sunday, Mr Bazoum said that Mr Woodke - the first American abducted in the west African country - "was probably kidnapped by the Mujao or handed over to the Mujao".

"We have had no contact with the Mujao, which is a terrorist organisation," he added.

Niger's long, porous borders make it occasionally vulnerable to the armed violence in neighbouring countries.

No matter who is responsible, in Abalak, the mayor - speaking for the distressed people of his city - is categorical in his condemnation.

"The kidnapping of Jeff is wrong," he said.