Dozens of students abducted from a school in northwest Nigeria last week have been rescued, the state government announced Saturday.
Gov. Abubakar Sani Bello of Niger state said that 38 abductees, including several staff members, were rescued around 4 a.m. Bello met with the victims, all of whom were present at a press conference Saturday afternoon, except for one who was being treated at a local hospital for exhaustion.
The victims, members of the Government Science College of Kagara, had been abducted Feb. 17 by gunmen in military uniforms. One student was shot and killed in the attack. Nigerian schoolchildren have increasingly become the targets of armed gunmen, who kidnap them in the hopes of securing large ransoms.
"They have been through tremendous torture," Bello said. "We are carefully watching their health and their condition." Bello said the victims would soon be reunited with their families, many of whom were waiting to take their children back home.
In an interview with the BBC, some of the students discussed the torture they faced at the hands of the gunmen who held them for a week and a half. 20-year-old Abubakar Sidi said the students were given little food to eat, and the particular punishment varied depending on what the student's parents did for a living.
Their captors would ask if a student's father was a police officer or a soldier. If so, the captors would single the children out for a beating, Sidi said.
Some parents told the BBC they weren't sure whether to let their children return to school. One mother, Elizabeth Jonathan, said she hadn't slept since her child was taken — and she didn't plan to let him return to the Science College or any other boarding school.
"Yes, we have rescued them, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us," the governor said. "Going forward, we are putting in place a system to look at the causes of these events."
News of these freed hostages comes just one day after more than 300 schoolgirls were taken from another school in northwest Nigeria, in Zamfara state. In a statement, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the government could deploy "massive force" against the kidnappers, but they wanted to avoid harming innocent bystanders, who might be used as human shields.
"Let bandits, kidnappers and terrorists not entertain any illusions that they are more powerful than the government," Buhari said. "They shouldn't mistake our restraint for the humanitarian goals of protecting innocent lives as a weakness or a sign of fear or irresolution."
Buhari added: "We will not succumb to blackmail by bandits and criminals who target innocent school students in the expectation of huge ransom payments."
Nigerian police say they are engaging in a coordinated search and rescue operation for the missing schoolgirls.