Security forces on Thursday rescued nearly 350 schoolboys who had been kidnapped by suspected Islamist gunmen in northern Nigeria and taken into a vast forest, the governor of Katsina state said.
The abduction last Friday night had been claimed by Islamist militant group Boko Haram in an unverified audio recording.
Gunmen raided the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara town, Katsina state, on motorbikes and carried off the boys in the biggest such incident in the lawless region in recent years.
Governor Aminu Bello Masari said in a televised interview with state channel NTA that a total of 344 boys held in the Rugu Forest in neighboring Zamfara state had been freed.
“We have recovered most of the boys. It’s not all of them,” he said.
In the rescue operation, security forces had cordoned off the area where the boys were being held and had been given instructions not to fire a fire a single shot.
“We had already established indirect contact to try to make sure that we secure the release of the children unharmed,” Masari said. “We thank God that they took our advice and not a single shot was fired.”
The boys were on their way back to Katsina state and would be medically examined and reunited with their families on Friday, Masari said.
The abduction gripped a nation already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.
News of the release came hours after a video started circulating online purportedly showing Boko Haram militants with some of the boys.
The video, which featured Boko Haram’s emblem, showed a group of boys in a wood pleading “Help us, help us.”
The father of one of the missing boys, who gave only his first name Umar, said his son, Shamsu Ibrahim, was one of the boys who is heard speaking in the video .
“All the armies that have come here to help us, please send them back. They can do nothing to help us,” the boy says.
Boko Haram has a history of turning captives into jihadist fighters. If its claims were true, its involvement in northwestern Nigeria marks a geographical expansion in its activities.
Earlier on Thursday, protesters marched in the northwestern city of Katsina under a banner reading #BringBackOurBoys as pressure mounted on the government to improve security.
“Northern Nigeria has been abandoned at the mercy of vicious insurgents, bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers, rapists and an assortment of hardened criminals,” said Balarabe Ruffin of the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), which focuses on the welfare of northern Nigerians.
Armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom, widely referred to as “bandits”, carry out attacks on communities across the northwest, making it hard for locals to farm, travel or tap rich mineral assets in some states such as gold.
Criminal gangs operating in the northwest have killed more than 1,100 people in the first half of 2020 alone, according to rights group Amnesty International.
In the northeast, Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, have waged a decade-long insurgency estimated to have displaced about 2 million people and killed more than 30,000. They want to create states based on their extreme interpretation of sharia law.
Buhari, who comes from Katsina, has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.
A former military ruler, Buhari was elected in 2015 in large part due to his pledge to crush the insurgency. Under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, Boko Haram grew in strength and controlled territory around the size of Belgium.