Relatives of more than 300 girls abducted by gunmen from their boarding school in northwest Nigeria endured an agonising wait for news amid rumours that they had been released, while security forces continued their search on Sunday.
An armed gang kidnapped 317 girls from the Government Girls Science Secondary School in the town of Jangebe, in Zamfara state, just after midnight on Friday.
One resident told the Associated Press that the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from responding to the mass abduction.
Zamfara police have been working alongside the army in a search-and-rescue operation since Friday. Two Reuters’ correspondents saw a heavy military presence in state capital Gusau on Sunday, with army trucks moving in convoy and police checkpoints on major roads.
The raid in Zamfara state was the second such kidnapping in just over a week in the northwest of the country, where schools have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday urged state governments not to reward “bandits” with money or vehicles.
School kidnappings were first carried out by jihadist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State, but the tactic has now been adopted by other militants whose agenda is unclear.
Balarabe Kagara, whose two 14-year-old daughters are among those taken, said he was praying for their safe return and remains hopeful. “I will be very happy if I see my daughters,” the 54-year-old farmer said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Rumours circulated on social media on Sunday that the girls had been released, prompting Zamfara state government to issue a statement saying governor Bello Matawalle was unhappy that someone would “try to further hurt the victims’ parents” with “falsehood”.
Abubakar Isa, whose 17-year-old daughter is among those missing, said his hopes and those of other parents were initially lifted by the rumour. “We heard that they will be released today, so we gathered at the school premises to receive them but it turned out to be rumours,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Aliyu Ladan Jangebe told the Associated Press that his five daughters aged between 12 and 16 were at the school when the kidnappers stormed in. Four were abducted but one escaped by hiding in a bathroom with three other girls.
The girls’ abduction has caused international outrage.
On Sunday, Pope Francis decried the kidnapping. “I pray for these girls, so that they may return home soon. I am close to their families and to them,″ Francis said, asking people to join him in prayer.
Last week, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the abductions and called for the girls’ “immediate and unconditional release” and safe return to their families.
In Zamfara, the governor ordered all boarding schools to close immediately.
Worried parents said they were unsure about whether children would eventually return to school.
One said, “If there is enough security, I believe people will return their children to school, but if there is no security, nobody will think of taking their children to school again.”