In Nigeria’s Notorious Northern Region, Gunmen frees hundreds of girls abducted from secondary school

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MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Hundreds of girls who were abducted last week from their boarding school in Nigeria by a group of armed men have been released, a local official said on Tuesday, the second time in less than a week that gunmen have returned kidnapped schoolchildren in the country.

The girls were taken on Friday from Government Girls Secondary School in the town of Jangebe, in the northern state of Zamfara. The Nigerian government has denied paying ransoms. It was not clear how the release of the children in this case was secured.

“It gladdens my heart to announce the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe from captivity,” the governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle, wrote on Twitter early Tuesday, referring to their school’s name.

Mr. Matawalle did not provide details about the girls’ release. Officials initially said that 317 girls had been in the group, but later told journalists that the correct number was 279.

The frequency of mass kidnappings of girls and boys at boarding schools in northwestern Nigeria is rising in part because abduction has become a growth industry amid the country’s economic crisis. The victims are increasingly schoolchildren — not just the rich, powerful or famous.

One of Amiru Malan’s daughters was among the kidnapped. He said that as soon as he heard the gunfire after midnight on Friday, he knew what the armed men wanted.

His home is only a short distance from a boarding school, where his two daughters lived in dorms. He knew the armed groups that have stalked schools in the region for months had come for his family.

The groups are known to target villagers in their raids, and there was little he could do but wait.

“I became apprehensive and tried to contact friends and relatives within the neighborhood,” Mr. Malan said. “A friend of mine also a parent to another abducted schoolgirl, whose house is just next to the school, told me that our daughters’ school has been invaded.”

His wife was by his side, “broken down in an inconsolable tears, calling out the names of our two daughters who are students in the affected school.”

Mr. Malan tried to comfort her with prayer and waited for the dawn.

“I headed to the school premises where two of my daughters are students,” he said.

“I saw my younger daughter, Maimunatu, who came running and crying,” he said. “I rushed to her and grabbed her firmly, hoping to hear that her older sister was safe, too. But Maimunatu shook her head and said, ‘They took her away.’ And she broke down in tears again.”

His daughter told him that the armed men were wearing uniforms and claimed to be with the military.

“We have come to protect you,” she recalled them saying. “Don’t be afraid because we don’t mean to harm any of you, just obey our instructions.”

Maimunatu, 13, hid under her bed and watched as her older sister, Khairiya, 14, was led away with hundreds of other girls. Three agonizing days later, the sisters were reunited.

Video posted on Twitter by the news site Daily Nigerian showed some of the girls walking past journalists in a straight line — solemnly and silently — as cameras flashed. The footage showed some as barefoot, while others were limping.

The week before the girls were kidnapped, more than 40 children and adults were abducted from a boarding school in Niger State, becoming the latest victims of the West African country’s slide into insecurity. They were freed on Saturday.

Hunting GroundsAs Northern Nigeria’s kidnap-for-ransom industry grows, the new targets are poor villagers and ordinary schoolchildren.

The banditry, one of Nigeria’s many complex conflicts, has even taken place in President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state, Katsina, where more than 300 boys were abducted by armed men in December. They, too, were later released.

The Katsina episode was reminiscent of the country’s most notorious kidnapping, the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the northeastern state of Borno.

Last week, Mr. Buhari blamed state and local governments for the recent uptick in kidnappings and urged them to improve security around schools.

On Tuesday, after the girls from the school in Zamfara State were returned, the state governor, Mr. Matawalle, struck a note of celebration.

“I enjoin all well-meaning Nigerians to rejoice with us as our daughters are now safe,” he wrote.

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