Navy SEALs rescue US missionary abducted in Niger via nighttime raid

Navy SEAL | Wikimedia

The U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six has rescued an American missionary who was kidnapped by an armed group last week in the West African nation of Niger, the Pentagon confirmed on Saturday. 

Jonathan Hoffman, the public affairs assistant to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, said in a statement that U.S. forces conducted a hostage rescue operation during the early hours of Saturday morning in Northern Nigeria to recover an American citizen who had been held hostage by a group of armed men. The abduction was not believed to be terror-related.

“This American citizen is safe and is now in the care of the U.S. Department of State,” Hoffman assured. “No U.S military personnel were injured during the operation.”

The American citizen is 27-year-old Philip Nathan Walton, who was kidnapped last Tuesday from his farm in the remote southern Niger village of Massalata, which is located near the border with Nigeria.

The captors demanded a ransom of over $1 million from his missionary family members, according to The Washington Post.

An unnamed U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter told the newspaper that if the ransom was not paid, the captors threatened to turn Walton over to extremist groups in the region.

Northern Nigeria has become a foothold for some terrorist outfits, including groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province and others who have made millions off abduction ransom payments in recent years.

Walton’s rescue was touted by Vice President Mike Pence as it comes days before Tuesday’s presidential election. Pence announced the rescue during a campaign stop in North Carolina.

“Last night, U.S. Navy Seals rescued an American taken captive in Niger just a couple of days ago,” he said. “That U.S. citizen is safe and no military personnel were injured in the operation. The armed forces of the United States of America are the greatest force for good in the history of the world.” 

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President Donald Trump has touted his administration’s successes in securing the release of other American hostages and prisoners in recent years — including North Carolina missionary Andrew Brunson in Turkey. Trump praised Walton’s release in a tweet.

“Last night, our Country’s brave warriors rescued an American hostage in Nigeria,” Trump wrote. “Our Nation salutes the courageous soldiers behind the daring nighttime rescue operation and celebrates the safe return of yet another American citizen!”

According to a source that spoke with ABC News, Walton lives with his wife and young daughter on a farm and was kidnapped from his backyard after assailants asked him for money but he could only offer them the equivalent of $40. 

Before Walton’s rescue, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense said that the protocol when a U.S. citizen is abducted is for the U.S. to work closely with local authorities to carry out search efforts.  

According to the officials with knowledge of the operation who spoke with the news outlet, six of Walton’s seven captors were killed during the nighttime raid that was conducted by SEAL Team Six in conjunction with the governments of Nigeria and Niger. 

"They were all dead before they knew what happened," a source told ABC News.

Eric Oehlerich, a retired Navy SEAL, told ABC News that Walton was fortunate to be rescued in such a short time after his abduction as other American hostages have been held for years or even killed. 

American hostage and Christian humanitarian worker Jeffery Rey Woodke, 59, has been held for over four years by Islamic State terrorists in Niger after he was abducted in October 2016.  

"Men in these top-tier special forces units train their entire adult lives to be ready when called upon,” Oehlerich said. “Hostage rescue operations are inherently dangerous. Those men put someone else's life above their own, they do so selflessly; ... it's an illustration of utter commitment."

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