At least 17 students kidnapped by the Boko Haram armed group from a school in northwestern Nigeria were rescued on Tuesday, said an official, adding that two students died in the operation, according to the Anadolu Agency.
Katsina state’s Governor Aminu Masari told a local radio station he had ordered an operation to be carried out after hundreds of students were kidnapped by the group from a boarding school in Kankara, a small town in Katsina, on Friday.
On Tuesday, Boko Haram, which had kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in the country’s Chibok region in 2014, claimed responsibility.
“The majority of the kidnapped students are in the Zamfara forest in the neighbouring province. Efforts are under way to save them,” he said.
Katsina state’s police spokesman Gambo Isah said a security guard was injured during the operation and additional security forces would be dispatched to the area for search and rescue operations.
Attackers on motorcycles stormed the all-boys Government Science Secondary School late on Friday and engaged security forces in a fierce gun battle, forcing hundreds of students to flee and hide in the surrounding forest.
Defence Minister Bashir Salihi Magashi visited the area, promising the students would be rescued soon, as parents and residents continued to demonstrate for their release.
The number of missing students also remains unclear – 320 or 333, according to two accounts by officials, while residents in Kankara put it at more than 500, AFP news agency reported on Wednesday.
Masari has ordered the closure of all boarding schools in the state in the wake of the attack.
Boy who survived the abduction
For Umar Ahmed, the nightmare began in confusion. Gunmen arrived late on Friday at his school just as he and his classmates were about to go to bed.
Their first thought was that the men were vigilantes – civilians who take on a policing role – “so, we were not scared,” the 18-year-old told AFP.
But then, he says heavy firing started. “We became terrified. Some of us ran to the perimeter fence trying to escape, while others hid inside.
“They kept shouting we should come back, that they were in the school to rescue us. And most of us came back,” he added.
Lanky and soft-spoken, Ahmad explained how the students were rounded up under a tree, split into three groups and led through the forest.
“We had no footwear,” he said, his feet swathed in black socks after they became riddled with thorns.
The teenager said the group trekked for hours, heading towards neighbouring Zamfara state. “They flogged us with tree branches and the flat side of their machetes,” he said.
But then came a stroke of luck.
He and a friend were able to hide behind a bush. They waited for complete silence to prevail before they retraced their steps back home to safety.
In a statement, President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the “cowardly attack” by Boko Haram “on innocent children”, saying the security forces had launched an operation.
The abduction took place hundreds of kilometres away from Boko Haram’s stronghold in northeast Nigeria, sparking fears of a massive advance in the group’s activities.
Fears that Boko Haram was making inroads into the northwest have been simmering for some time. About 8,000 people have been killed in the region since 2011, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.
The kidnappings occurred in the home state of Buhari, who was visiting the area when the attack happened. Buhari has made the fight against Boko Haram a priority, but the security situation in northern Nigeria has deteriorated since his 2015 election.
The government has not immediately reacted to Boko Haram’s claim or confirmed its authenticity.