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Hundreds of Nigerian schoolboys return after Boko Haram capture

Parents shed tears of joy as hundreds of Nigerian schoolboys who were abducted

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Parents shed tears of joy as hundreds of Nigerian schoolboys who were abducted by Boko Haram were freed from their Islamist captors.

Freed after being kidnapped in an attack on their school, the boys were welcomed by the governor of Katsina state and Nigeria’s president on Friday.

Emotional reunions with their parents began late in the day,

‘Since this incident happened I have not been able to sleep, but now I can sleep,’ said Salisu Kankara, a parent of one of the schoolboys who was released.

A family member of a freed schoolboy cries as she waits for a reunion with her son in Katsina Nigeria Friday, December 18. The students' nightmare began on the night of Dec. 11 when they were seized by men armed with AK-47 rifles from the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara village in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria

A family member of a freed schoolboy cries as she waits for a reunion with her son in Katsina Nigeria Friday, December 18. The students’ nightmare began on the night of Dec. 11 when they were seized by men armed with AK-47 rifles from the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara village in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria

They were marched through a forest and forced to lie in the dirt amid gun battles between their captors and the troops pursuing them. Pictured: A man reacts as he reunites with his son who was among those who were kidnapped

They were marched through a forest and forced to lie in the dirt amid gun battles between their captors and the troops pursuing them. Pictured: A man reacts as he reunites with his son who was among those who were kidnapped

The relatively quick release of the more than 330 boys took place after a prompt response by the government, which appears to have learned from earlier mass school abductions, especially of the Chibok schoolgirls, that did not have such a happy result.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadist rebels claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying they attacked the school because they believe Western education is un-Islamic.

As the boys’ parents anxiously awaited any news, many in Nigeria and around the world were bracing for a long, drawn-out hostage situation. Many feared the boys would be forced to become child soldiers for Boko Haram.

But the kidnapping reached an unexpectedly satisfactory climax when Katsina Governor Aminu Bella Masari announced the release of boys late Thursday night.

Dressed in dusty clothes and looking exhausted by their ordeal but otherwise well, the boys arrived on buses in the city of Katsina on Friday after authorities announced that 344 children had been turned over to security officials.

The boys piled into chairs in a conference room, many of them barefoot and some of them wrapped in grey blankets, as they prepare to have medical checks before they are reunited with their families.

Pictured: Parents cheer upon the release of the abducted Kankara schoolboys in Katsina, northwestern Kastina, Nigeria as they arrive home in a bus after being rescued

Pictured: Parents cheer upon the release of the abducted Kankara schoolboys in Katsina, northwestern Kastina, Nigeria as they arrive home in a bus after being rescued

A father of a freed schoolboy cries as he is reunited with his son

A father of a freed schoolboy prays as he is reunited with his son

A father of a freed schoolboy cries and prays as he is reunited with his son. Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadist rebels claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying they attacked the school because they believe Western education is un-Islamic

As the boys' parents anxiously awaited any news, many in Nigeria and around the world were bracing for a long, drawn-out hostage situation. Many feared the boys would be forced to become child soldiers for Boko Haram

As the boys’ parents anxiously awaited any news, many in Nigeria and around the world were bracing for a long, drawn-out hostage situation. Many feared the boys would be forced to become child soldiers for Boko Haram

One of them, with flecks of dried mud on his face, told local TV that the captors had fed them bread and cassava. ‘It was cold,’ he said. Asked how he had felt when the bus arrived in Katsina, he said: ‘I was really happy,’ and broke into a smile.

The students’ nightmare began on the night of Dec. 11 when they were seized by men armed with AK-47 rifles from the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara village in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria.

They were marched through a forest and forced to lie in the dirt amid gun battles between their captors and the troops pursuing them.

The boys described walking through the bush and different forests, stopping during the days and walking at night without shoes, stepping over thorns and stones.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadist rebels claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying they attacked the school because they believe Western education is un-Islamic.

Regional premier Aminu Bello Masari said no ransom was paid to free them, adding that ‘I think we can say .. we have recovered most of the boys, if not all of them’.

Rescued: Exhausted schoolboys pile into chairs at a government building in Katsina today following their release from captivity a week after they were kidnapped by Boko Haram

Rescued: Exhausted schoolboys pile into chairs at a government building in Katsina today following their release from captivity a week after they were kidnapped by Boko Haram

Welcome back: A smiling boy waves from on board a bus as children return to Katsina a week after their abduction, for which the Islamist group claimed responsibility on Tuesday

Welcome back: A smiling boy waves from on board a bus as children return to Katsina a week after their abduction, for which the Islamist group claimed responsibility on Tuesday

Security: Armed guards looked on as pupils from the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara were returned to Nigerian authorities on Friday

Security: Armed guards looked on as pupils from the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara were returned to Nigerian authorities on Friday

A boy wipes his face with his shirt after more than 300 children were handed over to security operatives on Thursday

A boy wipes his face with his shirt after more than 300 children were handed over to security operatives on Thursday

The abduction evoked memories of the 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in Chibok, only around half of whom have been found or freed.

Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced, a purported Boko Haram video appeared to show militants with some of the boys.

In the clips, a distraught teenager, surrounded by dozens of younger boys, speaks in English and Hausa saying: ‘We have been caught by the gang of Abu Shekau.’

His voice starts to falter as he says: ‘Please, please, we need your assistance,’ while the other children shout out to the camera before the recording ends.

The video was released with a recording made by the group’s elusive leader Abubakar Shekau.

The assault was initially blamed on criminal gangs who have terrorised the region for years, but Boko Haram claimed responsibility on Tuesday.

One of the boys makes a phone call after the children returned to a government building on Friday more than a week after their abduction by kidnappers on motorcycles

One of the boys makes a phone call after the children returned to a government building on Friday more than a week after their abduction by kidnappers on motorcycles

The children returned on buses today, some of them wrapped in grey blankets and looking exhausted after their week-long ordeal

The children returned on buses today, some of them wrapped in grey blankets and looking exhausted after their week-long ordeal

Some of the children carried their blankets as they were led into the government building in Katsina state on Friday

Some of the children carried their blankets as they were led into the government building in Katsina state on Friday

More than 800 pupils were in attendance at the time of the attack, more than 330 of whom were taken while others escaped.

The governor announced their release late on Thursday, saying 344 pupils had been recovered by security operatives.

‘We are very grateful. We are very grateful. We are very grateful,’ a man who said he was the father of two of the boys told the Arise television station.

However, it remained unclear whether all the abducted schoolboys had been released, amid ongoing uncertainty over the number taken in the first place.

Parents have been gathering at the school daily since the abduction, desperate for any information about the children’s fate.

‘I was about to leave yesterday evening when a boy who escaped was brought here,’ said one mother Murja Goma, before the children were rescued.

A distraught teenager in what appeared to be a video released by Boko Haram on Thursday. Surrounded by dozens of younger boys, he speaks in English and Hausa saying: 'We have been caught by the gang of Abu Shekau', referring to the group's elusive leader

A distraught teenager in what appeared to be a video released by Boko Haram on Thursday. Surrounded by dozens of younger boys, he speaks in English and Hausa saying: ‘We have been caught by the gang of Abu Shekau’, referring to the group’s elusive leader

Protesters marched in northwestern Nigeria on Thursday under a banner reading #BringBackOurBoys as pressure mounted on the government to secure their release

Protesters marched in northwestern Nigeria on Thursday under a banner reading #BringBackOurBoys as pressure mounted on the government to secure their release

‘He said they had no food to eat, that they live on leaves and acacia fruit that their captors pluck from the trees for them,’ the mother said.

‘We have shed so much tears, our hearts are grieving and we don’t even know what to do,’ the woman said.

Authorities will be ‘working with the police and also to engage private security firms to safeguard schools’ and prevent the ‘ugly experience of the last six days,’ the regional governor said.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari welcomed the boys’ release, calling it ‘a big relief to their families, the entire country and to the international community.’

Buhari said his government was ‘acutely aware of its responsibility to protect the life and property of the Nigerians.’

‘We have a lot of work to do, especially now that we have reopened the borders,’ Buhari said, noting that the north-west region ‘presents a problem’ that the administration ‘is determined to deal with.’

Shoes of the kidnapped students from Government Science Secondary School are seen inside their class room Kankara, Nigeria

Shoes of the kidnapped students from Government Science Secondary School are seen inside their class room Kankara, Nigeria

Boko Haram, and a splinter group the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), are waging an insurgency in Nigeria northeast and are thought to have only a minor presence in the northwest. However, Tuesday's claim of responsibility marks a major turning point - suggesting that the Islamists have made major inroads into the northwest

Boko Haram, and a splinter group the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), are waging an insurgency in Nigeria northeast and are thought to have only a minor presence in the northwest. However, Tuesday’s claim of responsibility marks a major turning point – suggesting that the Islamists have made major inroads into the northwest

After learning from previous mistakes, this time the government deployed forces quickly after the boys’ kidnapping and the abductors rapidly found themselves surrounded, Bukarti said.

Their release is ‘a fantastic story at the end of an awful week,’ he said. ‘Parents will be reunited with their loved ones … all of Nigeria will breathe a sigh of relief for a good ending.’

UNICEF Nigeria Representative Peter Hawkins called on the attackers to release any other children that may be held from this or other attacks.

‘Schools should be safe. Children should never be the target of attack and yet, far too often in Nigeria, they are precisely that – victims of attacks on their schools,’ he said.

He called on Nigeria’s government to put better interventions in place ‘to ensure that schools are safe and that all Nigerian children can learn without fear.’

President Muhamadu Buhari welcomed the boys’ release and met with all of them Friday, encouraging them to pursue their education despite the attack and abduction they endured.

Parents of the missing Government Science secondary school students wait for news on their children in Kankara , Nigeria, Wednesday

Parents of the missing Government Science secondary school students wait for news on their children in Kankara , Nigeria, Wednesday

School bags of the kidnapped student from Government Science Secondary School are seen inside their class room in Kankara

School bags of the kidnapped student from Government Science Secondary School are seen inside their class room in Kankara

‘This little difficulty you have faced in life should not deter you. You should gear up, ginger up and pursue your dreams in life,’ he said. ‘Because I went to school I have risen to become president twice, so education is the key to success. Do the best you can to acquire education and even religious knowledge so that it will guide you and your family in future.’

After their release late Thursday, Buhari stated that his government needs to do more to make schools secure from such attacks, and to protect the life and property of Nigerians, acknowledging the northwest presents a true challenge for his administration.

Many thorny problems remain in Nigeria.

The kidnapping shows that Boko Haram has been able to recruit armed gangs in Nigeria’s northwest, a worrying sign as the criminal gangs have increased attacks in the region this year, killing more than 1,100. While the bandits don’t have ideological motivations, Bukarti said, it has become clear that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has been able to make alliances with some of them.

‘Shekau started courting some of the bandits,’ back in January, Bukarti said, referencing a video launched by the Boko Haram leader explaining his ideology and in which the last 15 minutes he spoke in Fulani, the language of most of the bandits in the northwest, including the ones who spoke in the video released by Boko Haram this week. Later, Boko Haram made claims that they had penetrated parts of the northwest.

While that future may not be clear, the boarding school kidnapping shows that there was clear recruitment and Bukarti says that he would go as far as calling some of these local gangs Boko Haram associates now.

Boko Haram may well extend their reach into the northwest, he said, adding that they also got publicity.

‘This was a major propaganda point and that’s what Boko Haram and terrorist groups survive on,’ he said.

Though the government reaction to this kidnapping was fast – they had a rescue mission by the next day – criticism remains over the government’s handling of violence and how it will continue to grow in the West African nation.

Many Nigerians blame Buhari for the security lapses in the country and the opposition People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) says the abduction of the students in Katsina, the home state of the president while he was on a visit there, raises further serious questions over the government’s capacity to fight insurgency.

The PDP said President Buhari’s inability to manage Nigeria’s security has opened the country ‘for terrorists, bandits, vandals, and insurgents.’

The attack at the Kankara school highlights the weakness of Nigeria’s security institutions, said Prof. Odion-Akhaine. He fears the country is drifting towards anarchy as a result of the growing insecurity.

‘If there is anarchy in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, it will have a serious effect on the sub-region,’ he said.

 

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