Hundreds of schoolboys who were kidnapped in northwestern Nigeria nearly a week ago have been released, a local official said late on Thursday, prompting joy and relief for families that had been praying for the boys’ safe return.
Katsina state Governor Aminu Bello Masari said in a televised interview with state channel NTA that 344 boys held in the Rugu Forest in neighbouring Zamfara state had been freed.
“I think we have recovered most of the boys,” he said.
Al Jazeera has been unable to independently verify the figure and it was not immediately clear if all the boys who were kidnapped had been released.
Earlier, a presidential aide said the schoolboys had been freed, but it was unclear how many were released amid continuing uncertainty about how many were abducted from their all-boys school last Friday in Kankara, a town in Katsina state.
Masari said Nigeria security forces had cordoned off the area where the boys were being held and had been ordered not to fire their weapons.
“We had already established indirect contact to try to make sure that we secure the release of the children unharmed,” he said. “We thank God that they took our advice and not a single shot was fired.”
A security aide to the governor told the AFP news agency that 344 students were rescued and are in Zamfara undergoing checks. “We are grateful to God they have been released,” Ibrahim Katsina said.
The governor added that the boys were on their way back to Katsina state and would be medically examined and reunited with their families on Friday.
“I am so happy,” retired health worker Shuaibu Kankara, whose 13-year-old son Annas Shuaibu was among the kidnapped boys, told the Reuters news agency.
“We are so grateful to the governor of Katsina and all those who worked hard to secure their release,” said Kankara, adding that his only concern was to be reunited with his son.
The students were kidnapped last Friday from the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara.
In an audio recording, a man identifying himself as the leader of Boko Haram claimed on Tuesday that the armed group was responsible for the abduction.
The kidnapping has gripped Nigeria and raised growing concerns and anger about insecurity and violence in the country’s north.
President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed the students’ release and asked for patience while his administration dealt with security issues.
I welcome the release of the kidnapped students of Government Science Secondary School, Kankara. This is a huge relief to the entire country & international community. The entire country is grateful to Governor Masari, the Intelligence Agencies, the Military and the Police Force.
— Muhammadu Buhari (@MBuhari) December 17, 2020
“Our administration is fully aware of the responsibility we have to protect the lives and property of all Nigerians,” Buhari tweeted. “I ask Nigerians to be patient and fair to us as we deal with the challenges of security, the economy, and corruption. We will not relent.”
Earlier on Thursday, dozens of protesters marched through the streets in the city of Katsina under the banner #BringBackOurBoys.
That hashtag has been trending on Twitter in recent days, harkening back to a campaign launched to bring home more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 in the northeastern town of Chibok.
The march in Katsina was in response to a call from the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), a civil society body that focuses on the welfare of northern Nigerians. Some of the demonstrators chanted “Save northern Nigeria”.
“Northern Nigeria has been abandoned at the mercy of vicious insurgents, bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers, rapists and an assortment of hardened criminals,” a member of CNG, Balarabe Ruffin, said earlier on Thursday.
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 10-year rebellion estimated to have displaced about two million people and killed more than 30,000.
‘Jubilation in town’
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Katsina, said the state government is trying to put the children on buses to bring them back under military escort.
There have been helicopters flying overhead to ensure that the roads are clear, he said.
“The governor of Katsina state assured that they will be here no matter how long it takes,” Idris reported, adding that the schoolboys are expected to arrive around 4am local time (03:00 GMT).
Buhari is expected to meet the children on Friday before they are reunited with their parents, he added.
“When we broke the news to parents we met earlier today in Kankara, where the boys were taken, there was jubilation in town and a lot of people are really, really happy that this ended well,” Idris said.
Annie Olaloku-Teriba, a Nigerian affairs analyst, said the fact that the abduction took place in northwestern Nigeria has raised concerns because that is outside of Boko Haram’s typical area of operation.
She said the boys’ kidnapping was in essence “an attack on education”, which may also have more long-lasting effects.
“It poses questions as to the capacity of the government to protect schoolchildren and young people,” Olaloku-Teriba told Al Jazeera on Thursday, shortly after the news broke of the boys’ release.
“And that can have much longer-lasting consequences in terms of parents’ confidence to send their young people and their children to school,” she said.