CANE, NIGERIA: Boko Haram on Tuesday claimed it was behind the abduction of hundreds of students in northwestern Nigeria in what appears to be a major expansion of the jihadist group’s activities into new areas.
At least 333 students are still missing since the attack late on Friday on the boy-only Government Science Institute in Katsina state – hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the Boko Haram stronghold in northeastern Nigeria.
“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” the Boko Haram leader said in a voice message.
More than 100 gunmen on motorcycles stormed the rural school north of Kankara town, forcing students to flee and hide in the surrounding bush.
Some boys were able to escape, but many were captured, divided into groups and taken away, residents told AFP.
#BringBackOurBoys has been on social media store since the weekend in connection with a similar hashtag used after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in 2014 in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria.
The weekend attack was initially blamed on armed groups known locally as “bandits” who are active in the unstable region, where frequent kidnappings for ransom money.
The army said it had located the “bandits'” hideout, and that a military operation had begun.
The kidnappings took place in the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, who condemned the attack and ordered to strengthen security in schools. In Katsina all schools were closed.
Tuesday’s statement of responsibility marks an important turning point in the progress of jihadist groups in northwestern Nigeria.
Boko Haram, and a splinter group, the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP), are waging a rebellion in northeastern Nigeria and are thought to have only a small presence in the northwest.
But concerns have grown about jihadist entry into the region, especially after fighters claiming to be in the northwest released a propaganda video pledging allegiance to Abubakar Shekau earlier this year.
Buhari has made the fight against Boko Haram a priority of his administration, but the security situation in northern Nigeria has deteriorated since his election in 2015.
Angry residents disgraced Katsina’s state governor 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 by the school’s gunmen,” the 18-year-old student told AFP over the weekend.
“After they took us away, we stopped inside the bus, where they forced the older students to do a number. We counted 520,” he said.
The hostages split into groups before Maale and four others escaped.
“One of the shooters hit me several times when I failed to stay side-by-side with the rest of the group due to my failed health before he let me track back, giving me the opportunity to escape,” he said.
The Boko Haram uprising began in 2009 in northeastern Nigeria before spreading to neighbors including Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.
Since then more than 36,000 people have been killed in Nigeria and two million forced to flee their homes, causing a humanitarian crisis in the region.
A regional military coalition was formed to fight the rebels.