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Gunmen abduct US missionary in Niger

Officials believe that the abductors were al Qaeda-backed militants from neighboring Mali. The American had been in Niger since 1992 and spoke the local languages and Arabic, but locals had warned that he was a target.

Niger's military is pursuing a band of kidnappers - believed to be al Qaeda-backed militants - after the men killed two security guards and abducted an American missionary from his home in the southwest of the country.

Jeffery Woodke, who has lived in Niger since 1992, was taken away at gunpoint and put in a white Toyota Hilux pickup truck that was seen heading west, according to Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum.

"These criminals are now heading towards Mali," Bazoum said. "Our forces are on their trail."

Afrika Kanzlerin Merkel besucht Niger (Getty Images/AFP/B. Hama)

Chancellor Merkel meets Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou

Bazoum said the abductors were "jihadists or bandits" seeking to sell the American to Islamist extremists operating in Mali.

A security official insisted that the kidnappers were still in Niger, contrary to an earlier report claiming they had already slipped across the border into Mali.

Woodke was taken from his home in the town of Abalak, about 375 miles (600 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Niamey, and 300 miles from Mali's border, at about 9 p.m. local time (2000 UTC), according to authorities. Local residents said they heard gunfire in the neighborhood.

Working for God

Woodke is listed as an instructor on the Redwood Coast School of Missions website.

"Jeff has spent over a quarter of a century involved in missions ministry," according to his biographical summary. "He has committed the past 25 years of his life to a ministry he founded in Niger amongst a number of unreached people groups."

He is also affiliated with YWAM, another Christian charity operating in Niger.

The US government said it was aware of the kidnapping.

"The US Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas," an official said after the abduction.

Meanwhile the US Embassy in Niger issued an emergency notice for US citizens on Saturday, warning that "the threat of kidnapping and hostage-taking continues to be very high" and encouraging people to "take appropriate security precautions and to avoid predictable travel patterns."

A local resident who knows Woodke said he was "perfectly integrated with the population," noting that he was fluent in two local languages as well as Arabic. Still, the locals said they feared for the American's safety

"We tried many times to make him leave the area as he was more exposed than ever, but he refused, saying he wasn't afraid," the resident said on condition of anonymity.

Kidnappings by al Qaeda-backed militants have been much more prevalent in neighboring Mali in recent years.

bik/bw (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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