Nigeria Says 344 Kidnapped Students Have Been Released

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    More than 300 students kidnapped in northwest Nigeria last week have been freed after being held captive for six days, according to government officials.

    In all, 344 students have been released, Abdu Labaran, a spokesman for Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina state, where the mass kidnapping occurred, said by phone Thursday night. Nigerian authorities didn’t pay a ransom to secure the release of the boys, he said.

    President Muhammadu Buhari also welcomed the outcome, congratulating Nigeria’s intelligence agencies and security forces, according to a statement by his spokesman Garba Shehu.

    Unverified video and audio recordings purportedly made by Boko Haram claimed that the Islamist militant group was responsible for the armed attack on a boys’ boarding school in the northwestern town of Kankara on Dec. 11. Two days later, the Katsina state government said more than 330 pupils were still missing, while nearly 450 had been reunited with their families.

    Boko Haram’s claim isn’t true as the boys were abducted by local criminal groups, Ibraham Katsina, a security adviser to Masari, said by phone Friday. While the government believes it has negotiated the release of all students that were being held, it’s confirming with the school that nobody remains missing, he said.

    Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, “has successfully established a relationship with bandits already operating” in Katsina and nearby states, said Bulama Bukarti, an analyst at the London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. The abductions were carried out by local criminals “under Shekau’s instructions,” he said.

    Jihadist groups have been infiltrating the country’s northwest in recent times, even getting involved in conflicts between herders and crop farmers over grazing rights, Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report in May.

    Katsina is the home state of Buhari whose administration is struggling to contain widespread insecurity across swathes of northern and central Nigeria.

    In recent years, Boko Haram’s decade-long conflict with the military has been concentrated in the northeastern corner of Africa’s most populous country, as well as neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. If the insurgents were involved in the assault in Kankara, it would represent an expansion in the group’s reach.

    The latest incident shows Nigeria’s “continued vulnerability to heartless crimes” such as when jihadist groups kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in the northeastern towns of Chibok and Dapchi, in 2014 and 2018, according to a statement by Ahmad Lawan, president of the country’s Senate. Events in Kankara require the government to deploy adequate resources to protect educational establishments against attacks, he said.

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