CANE, NIGERIA: Boko Haram On Tuesday, he claimed that he 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 in new areas.
At least 333 students are still missing from the attack late on Friday on the government science school for boys in Katsina state – hundreds of kilometers (fortress) from Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.
“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the Katsina abduction,” the Boko Haram leader said in a voice message.
More than 100 people armed with motorcycles stormed the rural school in the north of Kankara, forcing students to flee and hide in the surrounding bush.
A number of boys were able to escape, but many were captured, divided into groups and taken, residents told AFP.
#BringBackOurBoys has been trending on social media over the weekend with a similar hashtag used after Boko Haram abducted 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 volatile region where ransoms are common.
The army said it had located the “bandits’ hideout” and that a military operation was underway.
The abductions took place in the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, who condemned the attack and ordered increased security in schools. In Katsina, all schools were closed.
Tuesday’s claim of responsibility marks a major turning point in the evolution of jihadist groups in northwestern Nigeria.
Boko Haram and a separate group, the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP), are conducting an insurgency in northeastern Nigeria and are believed to have only a minor presence in the northwest.
But worries have risen about jihadist incursions into the region, especially after fighters claiming to be in the northwest released a propaganda video promising allegiance to Abubakar Shekau earlier this year.
Buhari has made the fight against Boko Haram a priority for his administration, but the security situation in northern Nigeria has deteriorated since his 2015 elections.
Furious residents shook 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.
“There were a total of 520 of us who were taken by armed men from school,” the 18-year-old student told AFP over the weekend by telephone.
“After they took us, we stopped on the bus, where they made the older students do it effectively. We counted 520,” he said.
The hostages were divided into groups before Maale and four others escaped.
“One of the gunmen repeatedly hit me when I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group because of my poor health before he let me chase me back, giving me a chance to escape,” he said.
The Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009 in northeastern Nigeria before spreading to neighbors, including Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Since then, more than 36,000 people have been killed in Nigeria and two million have been forced to flee their homes, causing a humanitarian crisis in the region.
A regional military coalition has been formed to fight the insurgents.