KANO, NIGERIA: Boko Haram It was alleged on Tuesday that it was behind the kidnapping of hundreds of students in northwestern Nigeria, which appears to be a significant expansion of the jihadist group’s activities into new areas.
At least 333 students have been missing since the attack on the All-Boys Government Science Secondary School in Katsina state – hundreds of kilometers from the stronghold of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.
“I’m Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” said the leader of Boko Haram in a voice message.
More than 100 armed men on motorcycles stormed the rural school north of the city of Kankara, forcing the students to flee and hide in the surrounding bush.
A number of boys escaped, but many were captured, divided into groups and taken away, residents told AFP.
#BringBackOurBoys has been a trend on social media since the weekend regarding a similar hashtag used after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, in 2014.
The weekend attack was originally accused of armed groups known locally as “bandits” operating in the unstable region where ransom hijackings are common.
The army said they had found the “bandits” hiding place and that a military operation was underway.
The kidnappings took place in the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, who condemned the attack and ordered security in schools to be increased. All schools in Katsina were closed.
Tuesday’s claim to responsibility marks an important turning point in the advance of jihadist groups in northwestern Nigeria.
Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State in the Province of West Africa (ISWAP), are waging an uprising in northeastern Nigeria and are said to have only a small presence in the northwest.
However, concerns about jihadist intrusions into the region have increased, particularly after fighters claiming to be in the northwest released a propaganda video pledging allegiance to Abubakar Shekau earlier this year.
Buhari has made fighting Boko Haram a priority of his administration, but the security situation in northern Nigeria has deteriorated since his 2015 election.
Angry residents molested the governor of Katsina state during a visit to the area on Saturday, while protesters greeted a government delegation led by Defense Minister Bashir Salihi-Magashi on Sunday.
Osama Aminu Maale was one of the students who escaped the kidnappers and returned to his parents.
“A total of 520 of us were taken away from school by armed men,” the 18-year-old student told AFP over the weekend.
“After they took us away, we stopped in the bus where the older students were counted. We counted 520,” he said.
The hostages were divided into groups before Maale and four others escaped.
“One of the gunmen hit me repeatedly when I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group due to poor health before he left me behind and gave me a chance to escape,” he said.
The Boko Haram uprising began in northeastern Nigeria in 2009 before spreading to neighbors such as Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Since then, more than 36,000 people have been killed and two million forced to flee their homes in Nigeria, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the area.
A regional military coalition was formed to fight the insurgents.