The abductions have come amid a surge in kidnappings for ransom across northern Nigeria, where armed militancy has led to a worsening breakdown of security. Hundreds of schools across a vast swath of Africa’s most populous country have been closed in recent days, while surveillance aircraft and security forces have been dispatched to hunt for the missing.
The 42 hostages freed on Saturday were taken from a school in the Kagara district of Niger state, which borders the capital Abuja, and marched into the sprawling Rugu forest on Feb. 17, when gunmen overwhelmed the school security, killing one student.
“The Abducted Students, Staff and Relatives of Government Science College Kagara have regained their freedom and have been received by the Niger State Government,” Abubakar Sani Bello, the governor of Niger state, said on Twitter. He gave no details about how the captives were freed.
The latest kidnapping comes two months after 344 boys were taken from a school in nearby Katsina and then freed after a week. Three of the abducted boys told The Wall Street Journal that the kidnappers told them a ransom had been paid for their release. Government officials denied paying a ransom and said the kidnappers released the schoolboys because the military had surrounded them.
Rising insecurity has turned the practice of kidnapping for ransom into a booming industry, and signaled the increasing integration of criminality and terrorism in the region.
President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement on Friday appeared to contradict governors’ statements that they don’t pay ransoms, urging them to “review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles.”
“Such a policy has the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences,” the statement said.
Mr. Buhari has quietly dropped his claim that the country’s insurgencies are technically defeated and conceded that the nation is in “a state of emergency.” The country, which has one of Africa’s strongest armies and is a strong U.S. counterterrorism ally, is struggling to contain multiple threats: a 10-year jihadist rebellion, and swelling banditry and lawlessness that have become a conflict of overlapping militant groups
After months of criticism over rising insecurity across the country’s northern states, Mr. Buhari reluctantly agreed to reshuffle his military chiefs in January.
Celebrations over the news of Saturday’s release were tempered in the wake of the kidnapping a day earlier of more than 300 schoolgirls, an even larger abduction than the seizing of 276 girls from the town in Chibok in 2014 that ignited the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
The outcry led to the formation of the Safe Schools Initiative, which is backed by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and raised over $30 million to protect schools.
Nigerian security officials said Saturday that a search-and-rescue operation was under way for the young women, with soldiers, police and intelligence officers combing the area and surveillance planes scouring from the air.
But eyes in the sky can only offer limited help over the sprawling Rugu forest, which spreads over three states and hundreds of miles. February comes shortly after the end of the rainy season, when the canopy is densest. The region is dotted with villages and small settlements, making it hard to separate militant and hostage from farmers or nomadic herders.
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