Parents of more than 300 kidnapped Nigerian schoolchildren could only wait for news on Saturday, as more than 40 others seized elsewhere more than a week ago were freed.
Hundreds of schoolgirls were abducted by gunmen in northwest Nigeria on Friday in the country’s latest mass kidnapping, with a rescue bid currently underway.
The Government Girls Science Secondary School in Jangebe was completely deserted following the mass abduction.
Just a few goats broke the silence more than a day after 317 students were kidnapped by a group of armed men.
It was the country’s third school attack in less than three months – events that have revived traumatic memories of the “Chibok girls” kidnapped by jihadists nearly seven years ago.
After stoning an official convoy that tried to reach the school on Friday, resigned parents waited for news from a rescue mission that was trying to locate the girls.
“It would have been better if my two daughters had died and I buried them, knowing that Allah who gave them to me took them, than having them taken away by bandits,” Abubakar Zaki said.
Jangebe resident Bello Gidan-Ruwa told AFP: “No one knows the condition of the girls.
“The government said they are making efforts to rescue the girls but their efforts are not good enough until our girls are safely back,” he said.
Several hundred kilometres to the south meanwhile, students and teachers from the Kagara school who had been kidnapped in mid-February were freed, and welcomed by regional governor Abubakar Sani Bello.
Following medical examinations, the hostages, including 24 children, would be reunited with their families, a government spokesperson said.
As news of the freed students broke, distraught parents of those involved in the most recent attack gathered at the school, desperate for news about their own children.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris reporting from Minna in Niger state said: “[According to local people] the gunmen arrived shortly midnight and operated for hours in this all-girls school in Zamfar state.”
“This is one of the states that is continuously being attacked by these gunmen, abductions for ransom and raiding for villages … this is practically one of the major things that people in the north of the country are facing on a daily bases,” he added.
‘BLACKMAIL BY BANDITS’
Heavily-armed gangs known locally as “bandits” have stepped up attacks in northwest and central Nigeria in recent years, kidnapping for ransom, raping and pillaging.
President Muhamadu Buhari condemned the latest kidnapping as “inhumane and totally unacceptable”.
“This administration will not succumb to blackmail by bandits who target innocent school students in the expectations of huge ransom payments,” he said in a statement.
“We have the capacity to deploy massive force against the bandits in the villages where they operate, but our limitation is the fear of heavy casualties of innocent villagers and hostages who might be used as human shields by the bandits.”
“Our primary objective is to get the hostages safe, alive and unharmed,” he added.
On December 11 last year, more than 300 boys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, in Buhari’s home state of Katsina, while he was visiting the region. The boys were later released.
On February 16, 42 people including 27 boys were taken from a school by a similar gang in nearby Niger state, and are yet to be freed.
These incidents have triggered outrage as well as painful memories of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by jihadist group Boko Haram in Chibok, in northeastern Borno state, in April 14 2015.
In February 2018 the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram, snatched 111 girls from their boarding school in Dapchi, around 300 kilometres from Chibok.
The jihadists returned more than 100 girls to the town after talks with the government.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the kidnapping and called for the immediate release of the schoolgirls.
“Schools should always remain a safe space to learn without fear of violence,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Save the Children said it was “horrified” about the latest abductions.
“These attack … puts (the children) at risk of never returning to school, as they or their parents think it’s too dangerous,” said Mercy Gichuhi, the charity’s Nigeria director.
The federal government has yet to comment on the latest kidnappings. Unrest in northwest Nigeria is just one security challenge facing Africa’s most populous country, where militants are waging a jihadist insurgency in the northeast and ethnic tensions are simmering in some southern regions.
Along with central Nigeria, the northwest region has increasingly become a hub for large criminal gangs who raid villages, killing and abducting residents after looting and torching homes.
“Bandits” reputedly operate out of camps in Rugu forest, which straddles Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger states.
The armed forces have deployed there but attacks and mass kidnappings persist. The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings.
But there are concerns they are being infiltrated by armed Islamists. The jihadists’ decade-old conflict has killed more than 30,000 people and spread into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
– With AFP