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.
Daily Mail reports that 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 $1million 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 after they tracked the kidnapper’s phones.
According to ABC, all but one of the seven captors was killed in the mission, described as a ‘precision’ hostage rescue.
‘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.
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.
The CIA provided intelligence leading to Walton’s whereabouts while the Marine Special Operations elements in Africa helped locate him.
The New York Times reports that about 30 Navy commandos parachuted into the remote area where the kidnappers had taken Walton early Saturday morning. They hiked about three miles until they came upon the captors’ small encampment.
An intense but brief gunfight followed in which one captor escaped.
Walton was not harmed and whisked from the camp to a makeshift landing zone where a U.S. helicopter brought him to safety.
‘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, not naming Walton.
“We will never abandon any American taken hostage,” added Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Thanks to the extraordinary courage and capabilities of our military, the support of our intelligence professionals, and our diplomatic efforts, the hostage will be reunited with his family.”
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.
‘These types of operations are some of the most difficult to execute,’ retired CIA officer Mick Mulroy told ABC.
‘Any mistake could easily lead to the death of the hostage. The men and women of JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command], and the CIA should be proud of what they did here. And all Americans should be proud of them.’
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 neighbouring southern Niger on October 26.
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 USD 40, 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.