Nigeria sends troops to rescue more than 250 kidnapped students

Nigerian soldiers and police officers stand at the entrance of a school in Kaduna state, on March 12, 2021, after a mass abduction. Family members report that on March 7, 2024, dozens of students were kidnapped from a school in the town of Kuriga. FILE - Nigerian soldiers and police officers stand at the entrance of a school in Kaduna state, on March 12, 2021, after a mass abduction. Family members report that on March 7, 2024, dozens of students were kidnapped from a school in the town of Kuriga. VOA - FILE

Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu on Friday sent troops to rescue more than 250 pupils kidnapped by gunmen from a school in the country’s northwest in one of the largest mass abductions in three years.

The Kaduna state attack was the second mass kidnapping in a week in Africa’s most populous state, where heavily armed criminal gangs on motorbikes target victims in villages and schools and along highways in the hunt for ransom payments.

Local government officials in Kaduna State confirmed the kidnapping attack on Kuriga school on Thursday but gave no figures as they said they were still working out how many children had been abducted.

At least one person was shot dead during the attack, local residents said.

Sani Abdullahi, a teacher at the GSS Kuriga school in Chikun district, said staff managed to escape with many students when the gunmen known locally as bandits attacked early Thursday firing in the air.

He told local officials that 187 pupils had been snatched from the main junior school along with another 100 from the primary classes.

“Early in the morning… we heard gunshots from bandits, and before we knew it they had gathered up the children,” local resident Musa Mohammed told AFP.

“We are pleading to the government, all of us are pleading, they should please help us with security.”

Another resident Muhammad Adam also told AFP more than 280 have been kidnapped. Two more locals said around 200 were abducted.

The Kaduna abduction and the mass kidnapping a week ago from a camp for people displaced by jihadists in northeast Borno illustrate the challenge facing Tinubu who promised to make Nigeria safer and bring in more foreign investment.

“I have received a briefing from security chiefs on the two incidents, and I am confident that the victims will be rescued,” Tinubu said in a statement ordering armed forces to track down the kidnappers.

“Nothing else is acceptable to me and the waiting family members of these abducted citizens. Justice will be decisively administered.”

The two mass kidnappings also came almost ten years after Boko Haram jihadists triggered a huge international outcry by kidnapping more than 250 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state.

Some of those girls are still missing.

More than 100 people are reported missing after militants carried out a mass kidnapping last week targeting women and children in camps for those displaced by the jihadist conflict in Borno.

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Officials have given conflicting accounts of whether that attack took place on Thursday or Friday and exactly how many people were missing.

– ‘No child left behind’ –

Police did not provide figures for the Kuriga kidnapping.

Often the numbers of those reported kidnapped or missing in Nigeria are lowered after people fleeing the attack return home.

“As of this moment we have not been able to know the number of children or students that have been kidnapped,” Kaduna State Governor Uba Sani told reporters in Kuriga on Thursday. “No child will be left behind.”

Hundreds of schoolchildren and college students have been kidnapped in mass abductions in the northwest and central region, including in Kaduna, in the last three years.

Almost all were released for ransom payments after weeks or months spent in captivity at camps hidden in forests that stretch across northwestern states.

UN child welfare agency UNICEF condemned Thursday’s attack and called on the government to do more to protect students.

“Schools are supposed to be sanctuaries of learning and growth, not sites of fear and violence,” UNICEF Nigeria director Christian Munduate said in a statement.

“This latest abduction, as any previously, is highly condemnable and part of a worrying trend of attacks on educational institutions in Nigeria.”

Nigeria’s armed forces are battling on several fronts, including against armed criminals in the northwest and the long-running jihadist insurgency in the northeast that has killed 40,000 and displaced more than two million since 2009.

Fighting in Borno has eased as militants have been pushed back from the territory they once controlled, but they still carry out attacks and raids in remote areas.

Last September, gunmen abducted more than 30 people, including 24 female students, in a raid around a university in northwest Zamfara State.

In February 2021, bandits raided a girls’ boarding school in the town of Jangebe in Zamfara, kidnapping around 300 students. Months earlier, gunmen snatched more than 300 students from a boys’ school in Kankara in Katsina state before releasing them days later.

Between July 2022 and June 2023, 3,620 people were abducted in 582 kidnap-related incidents in Nigeria, according to local risk analysts SBM Intelligence. In January, SBM said 3,964 people had been abducted since Tinubu took office in May last year.