More than 300 schoolboys kidnapped by gunmen from their boarding school in northwest Nigeria last week were handed over to security agencies late Thursday, Nigeria’s government said, prompting outpourings of relief and joy across Africa’s most populous nation after fears they would become long-term hostages of jihadist militants.
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aminu Bello Masari, the governor of Katsina state, announced in a televised interview that 344 of the boys had been handed over in the forest of neighboring Zamfara state and would be immediately driven to Katsina for medical treatment.
The release comes six days after the students were seized from their dormitories at the Kankara Government Science Secondary School in Katsina and driven into the nearby forest, marking one of the largest mass school kidnappings in history. President Muhammadu Buhari praised the military and security agencies in a statement that offered prayers for the full recovery of the victims. They “endured significant hardships in the course of their ordeal,” the statement said.
Local newspaper The Katsina Post tweeted images of dozens of schoolboys jammed onto the back of trucks, some looking dazed, but others sporting wide smiles for the camera as they headed toward home. Government officials said the boys would be given new clothes before an audience with the president on Friday.
More on the Abducted Schoolboys
The boys’ parents were celebrating after a week of acute stress and anxiety.
Jamila Mani Abdullahi, whose two sons, 17-year-old Abdulganiyu and 15-year-old Ahmed, are among those kidnapped, said she had gathered with dozens of other parents on hearing the news. “We are celebrating and grateful,” she said over the phone, the sounds of whoops and cheers resounding in the background. “We cannot wait to be reunited with them.”
Many of the details around the kidnapping, in a remote agricultural area with poor communication, remain murky, including the total number of victims and the true identity of their captors.
It couldn’t immediately be determined if the group released included all the boys who were taken in the raid. Several who escaped said that some had died during the abduction and their march through the forest. Others said that the kidnappers had stopped to count the hostages and tallied more than 500 boys.
Jihadist group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying on Tuesday it had seized the students to punish them for “un-Islamic practices.”
That claim was met with surprise by some analysts, as it marked a dramatic departure from the extremist group’s usual area of operation in the country’s northeast. Others said Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has expanded the group’s sway to the northwest, brokering new alliances with heavily-armed criminal networks.
Hours before the governor’s announcement on Thursday, Boko Haram released a video purporting to show dozens of the schoolboys. In the grainy six-minute video, the hostages said that some of their classmates had died during their captivity and begged for the government to negotiate their release.
Analysts speculated on whether the captors were given anything in exchange for the hostages. The government hasn’t confirmed whether it believes the kidnappers were Boko Haram and denied that it paid a ransom.
The mass abduction came six years after the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, an abduction that ignited the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign. After three years, 103 were freed for a ransom that people involved said included the exchange of five imprisoned militants and €3 million, about $3.7 million. The government has denied paying a ransom. .
The news capped an emotionally fraught day where the schoolboys families’ hopes were raised, then dashed, then ultimately delivered.
More than 20 parents had been gathered around the school courtyard around lunchtime when rumors began to swell that a deal had been struck to free their sons. Their body language shifted from grief to hope and the mournful schoolyard became awash with excited chatter and some began to celebrate.
Then the news broke that Boko Haram had released the video purporting to show the schoolboys.
“Please, sir, you have to send all the soldiers and armies and the jets back,” said one boy, visibly terrified, apparently referring to the Nigerian military’s rescue effort.
The parents’ hearts sank as they heard no new updates from the government. But shortly after nightfall, calls to parents from local officials confirmed there would be a deal.
“God is great!” exclaimed a beaming Dalmatu Yusuf, whose 15-year-old son is also among the missing. Mr. Yusuf said the parents were expecting to see their children on Friday.
The news also marked a positive end to a grim week for President Buhari, a native of Katsina state who hadn’t commented on the news since Saturday. A former general who briefly governed Nigeria in the 1980s as a military dictator, Mr. Buhari returned to power by winning the 2015 elections on a promise to restore security to the north following the Chibok kidnapping.
In his first term, Mr. Buhari overhauled the armed forces and chased Boko Haram into remote strongholds in the forests of the northeast. He has since claimed that the insurgency has been technically defeated.
But since last year, the militants have been advancing, overrunning dozens of smaller military bases and looting weapons. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the period since July 2018 has been deadlier for Nigeria’s security-service personnel than any other time in the decadelong conflict.
The Kankara kidnapping has reignited fears over school security across the whole of Nigeria’s north. Boarding schools across four states have closed in response and it is unclear when they will open again.
Bulama Bukarti, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change based in London, said the news of the schoolboys’ release was “the story we needed at the end of a truly awful week,” but stressed that it had also demonstrated the barbarity of Boko Haram and its expansion into the northwest of Nigeria.
“This should be of grave concern for governments in the region,” he said.
Write to Joe Parkinson at email@example.com
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