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American Taken Hostage in African Country Plagued by Islamist Attacks

Gunmen kidnapped an American citizen in the West African nation of Niger early Tuesday and demanded a ransom from his relatives, a local government official said.

Philipe Nathan Walton was taken from his farm in Massalata in southern Niger at 1:45 a.m., Ibrahim Abba Lele, a prefect in the town of Birni-N’Konni, told The Associated Press.

The kidnappers called and demanded ransom from Walton’s father, who lives approximately half a mile from his son’s farm, according to the official.

The attack has not yet been claimed by an extremist group and police are investigating, he said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it is aware that an American citizen was abducted in Niger and is providing support to the family and working with local authorities to carry out search efforts.

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Niger has faced a growing number of attacks by extremists linked to both the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

The kidnapping comes two months after Islamic State-linked militants killed six French aid workers and their Niger guide while they were visiting a wildlife park east of the capital.

Tuesday’s kidnapping brings to seven the number of foreign hostages believed to be held by extremist groups in Niger.

Islamic extremists are kidnapping Westerners in the Sahel region to “advance their goals, whether for ransom, for the spotlight, or to amp up the pressure on local and international governments,” according to Laith Alkhouri, a counterterrorism specialist at CTI-ME, an intelligence group based in Dubai.

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“Militant factions will continue to resort to kidnappings as it has proven advantageous for their operations in West Africa,” he said.

The Islamic State group is believed to be holding one other American, Jeffrey Woodke, who was abducted from his home in Abalak, Niger, in 2016.

Woodke had been in Niger for nearly three decades providing humanitarian services and disaster relief, according to a video message released by his wife to the kidnappers two years ago.

A German, Jorg Lang, who was kidnapped in April 2018, is also believed to be held by the IS group.

Four other foreign hostages believed to be held by al-Qaida-linked militants are from Romania, Australia, Colombia and South Africa.

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