LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) – Rebels from the extremist group Boko Haram on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of hundreds of boys from a school in northern Nigeria’s Katsina state last week during one of the most major attacks of this type for years, raising fears of a growing wave of violence. In the region.
More than 330 students remain missing from Kankara government secondary school for science after gunmen armed with assault rifles attacked their school on Friday evening, though many more managed to escape.
The government and the attackers are negotiating the fate of the boys, according to Garba Shehu, a spokesperson for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
“The kidnappers had made contact and discussions were already underway regarding the safety and return” of the children to their homes, Shehu said on Twitter during discussions with Katsina governor Aminu Masari. None of the officials indicated whether the negotiations were with Boko Haram or another group.
Masari said security agencies “deployed for rescue operations have also informed us that they have located their position.”
The Nigerian daily said it received an audio message from Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau claiming the kidnapping, although there has been no independent verification of its authenticity.
The Islamic extremist group has already carried out massive kidnappings of students. The most serious was in April 2014, when more than 270 schoolgirls were taken from their dormitories at the government secondary school in Chibok, in northeastern Borno state. About a hundred girls are still missing.
In February 2014, 59 boys were killed in a Boko Haram attack on Buni Yadi Federal Government College in Yobe State.
In the audio message on Friday’s attack, Shekau said his group abducted schoolchildren because Western education went against the tenets of Islam.
More than 600 students attend the school. Many were able to escape in a shootout between the attackers and the police, according to state police spokesman Gambo Isah.
The students corroborated this account with various news agencies, claiming that many of them were also arrested and forced to walk to a nearby forest, where some were also able to flee.
Several armed groups operate in northern Nigeria, where Katsina state is located. The attackers were originally believed to be bandits, sometimes working with Boko Haram.
Bandits have been operating in the northwest region for some time and kidnappings have increased in recent years. Amnesty International says more than 1,100 people have been killed in the first six months of 2020 in violence linked to attacks by bandits.
A joint rescue operation was launched on Saturday by the Nigerian police, air force and army after the military engaged in shootings with bandits after locating their hiding place in the Zango / Paula forest .
If Boko Haram is proven to be behind the kidnapping, it could mean that a new wave of religious extremism is on the rise in Nigeria. For more than 10 years, the group has embarked on a bloody campaign for the introduction of a strict Islamic regime, but it is mainly active in northeast Nigeria, not in the northwest, where Katsina State. Thousands of people have been killed and more than a million people displaced by violence.
Nnamdi Obasi, of the International Crisis Group, said a shift of Boko Haram activities to the northwest would have serious security implications as it could team up with other armed criminal groups known to lead. attacks and collect payments from households and markets.
“They are like mini-armies capable of carrying out operations in defiance of the security forces, and that is worrying,” Obasi told The Associated Press.
However, local armed groups have no religious ideology and Obasi said the Boko Haram movement in the northwest would create “a risk of convergence between criminal groups and jihadist groups.” The trajectories are very worrying. “
Because the Northwest is a more homogeneous Islam than the Northeast, there are more potential recruits for radicalism.
Friday’s kidnapping has become a rallying cry for Nigerians who are fed up with the growing violence, with #BringBackOurBoys trending on Twitter as people voice their frustrations. A similar #BringBackOurGirls has become an international rallying cry for the Chibok girls.
“In the past, bandits and kidnappers terrorized our state, but little has been done to remedy the situation,” said Mallam Saidu Funtua, a member of a local civil society organization in Katsina state.
He added that “the kidnapping of students was the crowning achievement. This is unacceptable and the government must do more ”to protect students and residents.
The attack was a major setback for education in Katsina, which was starting to make progress in enrollment, he said, adding, “Our people will be discouraged from sending their children to school.”
Lawal Muhammed, a villager from Kankara, said the attack left most of the residents terrified and traumatized.
“We’ve never experienced this kind of thing before,” he said. “We want the government to do more to protect our children, especially now that schools are resuming after the COVID-19 hiatus.”
The kidnappings also come as Boko Haram and the Nigerian military may be investigated for war crimes in the rebel insurgency, which has spanned more than a decade.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said last week that an investigation had found enough evidence to justify opening a full-scale investigation into the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Boko Haram extremists as well as accusations that Nigerian government forces have also committed abuses.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said there is a “reasonable basis to believe” that Boko Haram and related dissident groups have committed crimes such as murder, rape, sexual slavery and torture, as well as intentionally targeting schools and places of worship and using child soldiers. While the vast majority of the crime in the conflict was perpetrated by Boko Haram, prosecutors also found reason to believe that members of the Nigerian security forces had committed crimes, she said.
Amnesty International released a report last week indicating that at least 10,000 civilians have died in Nigerian military detention since 2011 after being held in connection with the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria.
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed.