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Gunmen kidnap American citizen in southern Niger

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Six gunmen on motorbikes with AK-47 assault rifles kidnapped an American man from his home on the edge of a rural village in southern Niger in the early hours of Tuesday, multiple sources said.

The kidnappers seized 27-year-old Philip Walton, who kept camels, sheep and poultry and grew mango trees near the border with Nigeria, at around 0145 local time (0045 GMT), a police source, two local officials and three security sources told Reuters.

His wife, young daughter and his brother were left behind in their home in the village of Massalata, the police source said.

The U.S. State Department confirmed an American citizen had been abducted in Niger, but gave no further details.

Niger, like much of West Africa’s Sahel region, is struggling with a deepening security crisis as groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State carry out attacks on the army and civilians, despite help from French and U.S. forces.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017, sparking debate about America’s role in the sparsely populated West African desert that is home to some of the world’s poorest countries.

Walton does not work for the U.S. government or any U.S.-linked organisation, the sources said.

He has been living in Massalata for less than a year, said Ibrahim Abba Lele, prefect for the nearby town of Birnin Konni. He often walked his camels into the surrounding bush, Lele said.

“They were so exposed that he was abducted without anyone knowing,” he told Reuters.

A Niger security source said aircraft had been dispatched to search for the kidnappers. Nigerien officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The police source said that the perpetrators appeared to be from the Fulani ethnic group and they spoke Hausa and some English. They asked for money and searched the house before leaving with Walton.

The rest of the family was tied up so they could not inform the authorities, Lele told Reuters, though the police source said that the family were not threatened. Authorities believe that he has been taken over the border into Nigeria, Lele said.

Attacks in Niger have generally been restricted to a western zone bordering Mali and Burkina Faso, but there have been signs of encroachment this year.

In August, gunmen killed six French aid workers, a Nigerian guide and a driver in a giraffe reserve just 65 km (40 miles) from the capital Niamey.

Massalata is a few hundred miles to the east of that region. It is also hundreds of miles from a corner of southeast Niger that has come under attack from Islamist Boko Haram militants based in Nigeria.

At least six foreign hostages are being held by Islamist insurgents in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Islamists have collected millions of dollars in ransom payments in recent years. The U.S. government has frequently criticised other countries for paying.

Additional reporting by Moussa Aksar and Edward McAllister; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Bate Felix, Nick Macfie, Jonathan Oatis and Mark Heinrich

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