MINNA, Nigeria (AP) — Overjoyed parents welcomed home 90 young schoolchildren who had spent three months held by gunmen in northern Nigeria, though authorities confirmed Friday that one of the kidnapped children had died during the ordeal.
Meanwhile, elsewhere police announced that a second group of 15 students taken earlier this month also were freed, raising hopes across the country's north that other child hostages could eventually be delivered.
“The happiness can’t be quantified,” said Yahya Aliyu Babangida, 54, a teacher whose two children aged 7 and 17 were among those released.
Some of the abducted pupils in Niger state were just 4 years old, he said. Several were undergoing medical treatment after their release late Thursday.
“They are exposed to this harsh weather, no food, mosquitos everywhere,” he said. “Some of them had never been outside the comfort of their homes.”
News of the children's release was celebrated across Nigeria, where more than 1,000 students have been kidnapped from schools since December. Most are eventually freed though about 200 remain missing. The abductions have stepped up pressure on the Nigerian government to do more to secure educational facilities in remote areas.
But questions remained Friday about how much ransom had been paid to secure the children's release, and if so whether that could in turn fuel further abductions by the unknown armed groups referred to locally as bandits.
Muhammad Musa Kawule, 42, acknowledged paying intermediaries in hopes of securing his 6-year-old daughter's freedom.
“I spent a lot of money but today, I’m happy,” he told The Associated Press on Friday from Tegina. He did not specify how much he had paid nor whether government officials had been involved.
Gunmen on motorcycles had attacked the Salihu Tanko Islamic School there in late May. Other preschoolers were left behind as they could not keep pace when the gunmen hurriedly moved those abducted into the forest.
Authorities initially said that 136 students had been taken but revised that figure to 91, including the child that died in captivity.
While Nigeria has seen scores of school abductions for ransom, the Niger state kidnappings left people aghast because the children were so young. The ramifications could be long lasting as parents reconsider whether to send their children to school.
“This has affected the morale and confidence of the people and has even made parents think twice before they send their children to school,” Niger state Gov. Abubakar Sani Bello said of the children’s abduction. “We will do whatever it takes to bring (the kidnappers) to justice.”
As the attacks have mounted across the north, there are also signs they are becoming more violent.
After one kidnapping at a university in Kaduna state earlier this year, gunmen demanded ransoms equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars. They killed five students to compel other students’ parents to raise the money and later released 14.
Also Friday, Zamfara state police spokesman Mohammed Shehu said that 15 other students had been handed over to officials on Friday, 11 days after they were abducted from the College of Agriculture and Animal Science in Nigeria's troubled northwest.
It was not immediately clear how they were rescued, but the students are now being looked after by Zamfara state officials and will soon be reunited with their parents, authorities said.
Asadu reported from Lagos, Nigeria.
Ajayi Taiwo Oluwole And Chinedu Asadu, The Associated Press