Niger town fears for ab­ducted aid worker

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

ABALAK: For peo­ple liv­ing in the small city of Abalak in cen­tral Niger, the ab­duc­tion of a long­time US aid worker over a week ago has left them an­gry and anx­ious. Jef­fery Woodke was no stranger here. “We are fu­ri­ous and shocked by this kid­nap­ping,” said Ibrahim Adamou, a 16-year-old stu­dent, as he and neigh­bors of Woodke re­called the evening of Oc­to­ber 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.

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 neigh­bors. 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 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 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.

Jeff ‘wasn’t afraid’

But ap­par­ently 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 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 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 350 kilo­me­ters north­east of the cap­i­tal Ni­amey, the kid­nap­pers “went straight to his home, guided by a mo­tor­cy­clist”. Last Sun­day Ba­zoum said that 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 or­ga­ni­za­tion,” he added. Niger’s long, por­ous bor­ders make it oc­ca­sion­ally vul­ner­a­ble to the armed vi­o­lence in neigh­bor­ing 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. — AFP

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