An American tourist who was kidnapped alongside her driver in a national park in southwestern Uganda has been freed after the safari tour company allegedly paid their $500,000 ransom.
Kimberly Sue Endicott, 56, and the Wild Frontiers safari guide were released ‘unharmed’ and in ‘good health’ after five harrowing days being held by gunmen in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Unfortunately, her captors escaped and military operations continue to try and track down the kidnappers.
On Saturday, Endicott was pictured greeting Wild Frontiers’ Uganda director Paul Goldring who helped free the 56-year-old American and the tour guide.
The kidnappers had demanded a ransom of $500,000 for her release and a source claimed to the New York Times that the tour company paid for her release, which reportedly took place on the Democratic Republic of Congo side of border area Ishasha.
Jane Goldring, a director at Wild Frontiers, confirmed they were freed. Someone else at the company who wished not to be named told the Times the two were ‘enjoying a square meal and hot shower’.
Married father-of-two Jean-Paul Mirenge Remezo, 48, grinned as he shook Goldring’s hand at a dining table.
The state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority on Thursday criticized the driver for not taking an armed guard with him, despite widely-known government advice.
AFP reported Mike Walker, manager of Wild Frontiers Safaris, text that the two were ‘back safe’.
‘Ransom paid and people exchanged,’ he wrote, adding he did not know the ‘precise amount yet’.
Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said in a tweet that driver Jean Paul had also been rescued. He said: ‘They are back at the lodge and she is expected to be in Kampala tomorrow.’
US President Donald Trump also expressed happiness at the outcome.
He tweeted: ‘Pleased to report that the American tourist and tour guide that were abducted in Uganda have been released. God bless them and their families!’
The pair were taken to a lodge at the park, a spokesman for safari organizers Wild Frontiers Uganda told ABC News.
At least six military helicopters were spotted landing at a nearby airport on Sunday as well as soldiers driving quickly in the area of the park.
‘Security services have this evening managed to rescue kidnapped citizen Kimberly Sue Endicott and her driver Jean Paul Mirenge [Remezo],’ the Government of Uganda tweeted. ‘Appreciation goes to [Uganda Police Force and sister security agencies that led the operation to return Sue and Jean Paul.’
The gunmen’s identity is unclear but the area where the abduction took place was once roamed by fighters belonging to an anti-Kampala rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which is now mostly dormant. The group is still believed to have camps in eastern Congo.
It comes just in time for the grandmother’s 57th birthday on April 15.
Her family had pleaded for her ransom to be negotiated.
‘The family has done what’s been asked of them to do. I think it’s the government’s time to help us,’ the woman’s cousin, Rich Endicott, told the Associated Press.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week the United States does not pay ransoms to release its citizens.
‘Please remember that any payment to a terrorist or a terrorist regime gives money so that they can seize more of our people,’ he said after meeting families of other citizens that had been kidnapped.
‘Even a small payment to a group in, say, Africa can facilitate the killing or seizure of tens or even hundreds of others, including Americans or foreign nationals in that region.’
Endicott’s cousin said about Pompeo’s comment: ‘I heard our Secretary of State get on there and say we don’t pay ransom. OK, fine. Then get the Navy SEALS, get them on a plane and go save her. Don’t pay ransom, I’m good with that. But he didn’t say any of those things, and maybe they’re doing those things, but who knows.’
On Sunday, assistant inspector general of the Ugandan Police, Abbas Byakagaba, was optimistic before Endicott’s release.
‘I think we will be able to resolve it,’ she told ABC News.
Ugandan minister of tourism, Ephraiam Kamuntu, was equally as positive.
‘If I had lost hope, I wouldn’t be here,’ he said from the park.
Endicott was on a game drive when her vehicle was ambushed Tuesday evening, according to police.
A friend said Thursday that Endicott had shared an image on Instagram of four armed guards before she suddenly stopped posting.
‘I know she was planning this trip for a while, because it’s something that she’s always wanted to do,’ Endicott’s client Pam Lopez told KTLA in a phone interview. ‘This was always a big trip she wanted to take.’
Lopez told the station that Endicott – who has a daughter and a granddaughter – was fulfilling her lifelong dream to go to see gorillas in Uganda.
‘She had been posting pictures of her trip up until – it looks like two days ago, which brings it to Tuesday, which I believe is the day she got kidnapped.’
But Lopez admitted she wasn’t sure if Endicott’s loved ones even knew she had been kidnapped.
She added about the Costa Mesa aesthetician: ‘Honestly, I don’t know what to think. I’m still trying to process it.’
Endicott works at Solutions Skincare Studio according to her Facebook profile.
On Thursday teams ‘widened the search area’ to include the districts of Kanungu and Rukungiri, where approximately 500,000 people live.
Between 5pm and 7pm on Tuesday, the tourist and her driver were taken.
The safari company’s website says Remezo is married with two children, was born in Congo and grew up in the area near Goma. He moved to Uganda in 1992 and joined the company with in 2007 with five years of experience in the tourism industry. He speaks English, Swahili and French.
Canadian elderly couple Martin Jurrius and his wife Barbel, both 78, were left behind on the Edward Track between Katoke Gate the wilderness camp, and reported the kidnapping to the camp manager who came to rescue them.
Deputy Police spokesperson ACP Polly Namaye, said the captors took the keys the van the couple was left in.
They were not abducted or physically harmed. Endicott and the couple entered Uganda on March 29 and flew the next day to the park in the country’s southwest, a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) spokesman said.
The group quickly made their demand for Shs1.8billion using Endicott’s cellphone.
‘We strongly believe this ransom is the reason behind this kidnap,’ the police stated Wednesday. ‘The Joint Security teams have cut off all exit areas on the border between Uganda and the DRC in search of the victims.’
On Thursday police said the captors were still using devices from the kidnapped people to ask for ransom money.
‘They (the abductors) continue to use cell phones of the victims to call the lodge they were staying asking for $500,000 ransom, which we will not offer,’ Uganda Deputy Police Spokeswoman Namaye said.
The state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) said an armed ranger is supposed to be with tourists and their guides at all times.
‘We have armed ranger guides, if you’re going out on a drive in the park you’re supposed to have one but these tourists went out on their own without a guard,’ spokesman Bashir Hangi told Reuters.
‘From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out. They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive and then we would have availed them a guard but they didn’t do this.’
Hangi added to ABC News on Thursday: ‘This is a one-off incident, it’s an isolated incident. It is not something that we are known for. We call it an accident. It’s very unfortunate, it is regrettable, but it happened.
‘Our parks are very safe right now, tourists are in the parks as I speak. We are known to be a safe country for all visitors. We are known to be a country with people who are warmly welcoming those they don’t know. That’s what we are known for and that’s who we are, and that’s who we are going to remain to be despite this incident.’
On Wednesday it said ‘is aware of reports that an American citizen was kidnapped and warned to ‘exercise caution when traveling to this area due to ongoing security activity’.
‘We want to further reassure the public that this is the first incident of its kind registered in such a peaceful setting and those planning to visit the national park and its surrounding should not be discouraged,’ police had said.
Queen Elizabeth, in southwestern Uganda lies some 90 miles north of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, famous among tourists for gorilla trekking.
In 1999, Rwandan rebels killed eight foreign tourists there, inflicting an enormous blow to Uganda’s tourist industry.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of the East African nation’s most famous wildlife reserves, runs along the frontier with conflict-wracked regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It borders its famous Virunga national park, Africa’s oldest national park.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Leah Simpson