More than 300 schoolchildren kidnapped a week ago in northwestern Nigeria will be reunited with their families after they are brought to safety.
The 344 children, whose abduction was carried out by local bandit groups and claimed by Islamist militants Boko Haram, were rescued Thursday night from a forest enclave, according to Katsina state governor Aminu Masari.
The children arrived in the town of Katsina on Friday morning, expecting their parents. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, himself from the northwestern state, was expected to meet with the children on Friday after they underwent medical checks.
The boys were taken to a room at the Katsina government facility where they were surrounded by dozens of reporters and photographers and the governor made a speech to the media. Some parents were there, but most were on their way or still in Kankara.
However, questions remain about the extent to which Boko Haram was involved in one of the largest kidnappings ever recorded in Nigeria and whether all the children have been rescued. School and government officials have not been able to provide the exact number of children in the school, and government officials and local residents provided conflicting figures on those registered and abducted by gunmen on Friday night.
More than 800 students are believed to be at the Government Science High School in Kankara Town when it was attacked, but hundreds escaped. Some of the children who fled said they took more than 500.
Government officials had initially said 333 were kidnapped, but Masari said Thursday, “At this time, 344 of the students have been turned over to security agents. I think we have recovered most of the children, if not all. “
Early Thursday morning, fears for the children increased when Boko Haram released pictures purporting to show some of the children. In the video, many looked disheveled and exhausted, huddled under a tree in a wooded area.
One of the children in the pictures, who seemed compelled to speak, called for the closure of all non-Koranic schools and said that the government troops sent to find the children should be returned.
However, state government officials insisted that they had contacted the assailants they knew. The leaders of the armed bandit gangs that have terrorized everyday life in northwestern Nigeria are known to state government officials in the region, who have attempted to negotiate with the groups and have signed controversial peace accords that have later been resolved. .
The Katsina government denies that a ransom was paid, but swift negotiations and the confidence of government officials point to a complicated network of criminal gangs, communal groups and state authorities, amid growing insecurity in the region.
Security sources told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday that the operation was carried out on the orders of Boko Haram by a notorious gangster named Awwalun Daudawa in collaboration with Idi Minorti and Dankarami, two other bandits with strong local supporters.
Many of the groups are made up of ethnically Fulani raiders, as a result of conflict between Fulani herdsmen spanning the Sahel and farming communities.
Armed groups operate from hiding places in a vast mineral-rich forest area that stretches northwestern Nigeria and Niger. Cities and towns near the forests have been subjected to mass murder, assault, sexual violence, and extortion. The number of kidnappings for ransom has increased in recent years.
According to Amnesty International, 1,126 people were killed by bandits in Nigeria between January and June this year.
A Kankara villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bandits were known in the area and “operate freely”, with little resistance from security forces.
Dr Murtala Rufa’i, a security analyst, said that the activity of jihadist groups such as Boko Haram in the region was increasing, but despite Boko Haram’s claim, the full scope of their involvement in this particular kidnapping remained without being clear.
“The link between Boko Haram and some of these groups is there and the connection is strong, but there are many factors that complicate these links,” he said. “Boko Haram is ideological, with a clear hierarchy and mission, but banditry is primarily a local phenomenon, designed and orchestrated by local bandits who are fully known in the region and by state authorities.”
Additional reporting by Abba Mohammed
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