Nearly 100 Nigerian schoolchildren kidnapped from an Islamic seminary three months ago were reunited with their parents on Friday after their gunmen captors freed them from forest hideouts.
The May 30 Tegina seminary abduction in northwest Niger State was one of the longest-running mass kidnappings at a Nigerian school since December when criminal gangs began to target students and pupils.
Dressed in fresh blue headscarves and tunics, the male and female students, some younger than 10 years old, were met by the local governor in Niger State before being reunited with their families.
“I have a child and I am very happy. I give God all the glory,” said one father Fasilat Jimoh Danjuma. “Thank God they are back hale and healthy and we are happy.”
Head teacher Abubakar Alhassan said 92 children from the seminary were freed along with two Christian students who had been taken from a nearby village.
One of the Tegina children had died in captivity, he said.
Officials gave no details about how the children were freed, but parents said during the captivity they had sold houses and belongings to come up with ransom money.
A go-between who delivered one payment was kidnapped himself for a week before being released with a demand for more money.
Originally school officials had said 136 children were kidnapped. But a later detailed check with parents showed 93 were taken, headteacher Alhassan told AFP.
– Forest camps –
Earlier reports of other student deaths and escapes were not related to the Tegina seminary abduction, he said.
During the May attack, around 200 motorcycle-riding gunmen from criminal gangs known locally as bandits stormed Tegina town in Niger state’s Rafi district, abducting dozens of the pupils.
Around 1,000 students have been snatched since December after gangs started to hit schools. Most have been released after negotiations, but scores are still being held in forest camps.
Earlier this week, gunmen who kidnapped more than 100 students from a Baptist high school in northwestern Kaduna State released 15 more of those hostages after collecting ransom.
Northwest and central Nigeria have long suffered from tensions and tit-for-tat armed raids between local farming communities and nomadic herders over grazing land and water resources.
But violence has exploded recently with large, heavily armed criminal gangs involved in cattle rustling, looting villages and mass kidnapping. Most of them keep camps in dense forests across Kaduna, Katsina, Niger and Zamfara states.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former soldier first elected in 2015, has come under pressure over insecurity as troops battle jihadists in the northeast, bandit gangs in the northwest and separatism tensions in the country’s southeast.