About 140 students are missing after armed men raided a boarding school in Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Monday, and police said they were in hot pursuit alongside military personnel.
The attack is the 10th mass school kidnapping since December in northwest Nigeria, which authorities have attributed to armed bandits seeking ransom payments.
Police said gunmen shooting wildly attacked the Bethel Baptist High School in the south of Kaduna state overnight.
“They … overpowered the school’s security guards and made their way into the students hostel where they abducted an unspecified number of students into the forest,” a police statement said, adding 26 people including a female teacher had been rescued.
Reverend John Hayab, a founder of the school, told Reuters news agency about 25 students had managed to escape.
Roughly 180 students attended the school and were in the process of sitting exams, according to Hayab, whose 17-year-old son escaped, and parent, Hassana Markus, whose daughter was among those missing.
Local residents who declined to be identified said security officials cordoned off the school after the attack, which took place between 11pm on Sunday and 4am on Monday.
“The kidnappers took away 140 students, only 25 students escaped. We still have no idea where the students were taken,” Emmanuel Paul, a teacher at the school told AFP news agency.
Kaduna state police spokesman Muhammed Jalige confirmed the attack, but could not give details on the number of pupils taken.
“Tactical police teams went after the kidnappers,” he said. “We are still on the rescue mission.”
Armed men, known locally as bandits, have made an industry of kidnapping students for ransom in northwest Nigeria, with Kaduna state particularly hard hit. They have taken nearly 1,000 people from schools since December last year, more than 150 of whom remain missing.
Kidnappers have also targeted roads, private residents and even hospitals. In the early hours of Sunday, gunmen abducted six people including a one-year-old child from a hospital in northern Kaduna state.
School kidnappings in Nigeria were first carried out by the armed groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province, but the tactic has now been adopted by other gunmen.
In February, President Muhammadu Buhari urged state governments “to review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles”, warning the move might boomerang disastrously.
The unrest has become a political problem for Buhari, a retired general and former military ruler who has faced mounting criticism over prominent attacks by the gangs.
The highest profile school kidnapping was that of more than 270 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram from the town of Chibok in 2014. About 100 of them remain missing.