Kidnappers have released all the girls abducted from a boarding school in the northwestern Nigerian state of Zamfara on Friday, the governor told Al Jazeera, as President Muhammadu Buhari expressed “overwhelming joy” over the news.
Bello Matawalle said on Tuesday the nearly 300 students were safe with authorities and that no ransom had been paid for their release.
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“Today, we have received the children who were under captivity since Friday. I initiated a peace accord which yielded a positive result. No ransom was paid to anyone. I insisted that we were not going to give anything to any of them,” Matawalle told Al Jazeera.
The governor said the students were being taken to a health facility for medical examination.
On Friday, police said 317 girls were abducted in the raid by more than 100 gunmen on the Government Girls Secondary School in remote Jangebe village.
However, Matawalle told Al Jazeera the total number of kidnapped students was 279.
Zamfara state spokesman Sulaiman Tanau Anka told Reuters news agency some of the missing girls had run into the bush at the time of the assault, confirming the number of those kidnapped was 279.
One the girls told reporters early on Tuesday how the kidnapping took place.
“We were sleeping at night when suddenly we started hearing gun shots. They were shooting endlessly. We got out of our beds and people said we should run, that they are thieves,” she said.
“Everybody fled and there were just two of us left in the room. The other girl is from my town. I told her ‘get up!’ so we can run away, she said ‘I swear to God, I will not leave the bed’. At that stage they were pointing guns at our heads. I was really afraid of being shot,” She added.
Government officials had been in talks with the kidnappers – referred to as “bandits” – following Nigeria’s third school attack in less than three months.
Zamfara state police commissioner Abutu Yaro said a government-led peace process had resulted in the girls’ release.
“The Zamfara peace accord remains the backbone of the success we have recorded so far. These children were recovered through dialogue,” he told reporters, adding that more details of the incident and police response would be released later.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Zamfara state capital, Gusau, said many parents wept when they found out about the release of their children.
“There was a huge amount of relief for the parents, students and the state government. Authorities told us it was difficult to secure the release. It took days of negotiations with what the government calls repentant bandits to bring the girls back. Some of the girls are less than 11 years old,” Idris said.
In a tweet, President Buhari said he was “pleased that their ordeal has come to a happy end without any incident”.
Ovigwe Eguegu, geopolitical and security Analyst at Afripolitika, a security think-tank, told Al Jazeera that kidnappers are targeting schools because they are a soft target.
“We have seen far too many cases in such a short time. It is very concerning. The cases are opportunistic. These kidnappings are low risk and high reward for the kidnappers. Some of these schools are not even fenced and they are close to bushes where criminal elements operate from,” Eguegu said.
Heavily armed criminal gangs in northwestern and central Nigeria have stepped up attacks in recent years, kidnapping for ransom, raping and pillaging.
The Nigerian military deployed to the area in 2016 and a peace deal with bandits was signed in 2019 but attacks have continued.
In December, more than 300 boys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, in Buhari’s home state of Katsina, while the president was visiting the region.
The boys were later released but the incident triggered outrage and memories of the kidnappings of 276 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram armed group in Chibok that shocked the world.
Many of those girls are still missing.
The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings.
But there are concerns they are being infiltrated by rebel groups.
Kidnapping for ransom in Africa’s most populous country is already a widespread national problem, with businessmen, officials and citizens snatched from the streets by criminals looking for ransom money.
At least $11m was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and March 2020, according to SB Morgen, a Lagos-based geopolitical research consultancy.