Hundreds of girls who were kidnapped from a boarding school in northwestern Nigeria last week have been freed, the local governor told AFP on Tuesday.
President Muhammadu Buhari expressed "overwhelming joy" at their release and called on the security forces to hunt down their abductors, after Nigeria reeled from its fourth mass abduction in less than three months.
"I am happy to announce that the girls are free," Bello Matawalle, governor of Zamfara state, told AFP.
An AFP reporter saw hundreds of girls wearing hijabs gathered at government premises in Gusau, the state capital, where Matawalle hosted a reception for them.
Authorities initially said 317 girls were abducted when gunmen, known locally as bandits, raided the Government Girls Secondary School in remote Jangebe village on Friday.
But Matawalle said "the number of those who were kidnapped is 279 and no one was missing."
"All the 279 are present," he said.
He said the girls were freed with the assistance of "repentant bandits."
They will be given medical care to ensure "they are well to be back to their school or to reunite with their families," Matawalle said.
The governor urged parents not to let the incident discourage their children from going to school.
"I assure you that the government will provide all measures to prevent further occurrence of this incident, by the Grace of God."
One of the girls, Hafsat Umar Anka, recounted their ordeal.
"We trekked all the way," she said, speaking in Hausa. "Some of us developed sore feet while others could not walk and had to be carried on the back by some of us."
"They threatened to kill anyone of us who refused to stay. We were very cautious. They fed us adequately."
She added: "We were put in a wide ditch littered with faeces and we were made to sleep there."
Heavily-armed criminal gangs in northwest and central Nigeria have stepped up attacks in recent years, kidnapping for ransom, raping and pillaging.
The Nigerian military deployed to the area in 2016 and a peace deal with bandits was signed in 2019, but attacks have continued.
In December, more than 300 boys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, in Buhari's home state of Katsina, while he was visiting the region.
The boys were later released but the incident triggered outrage, reviving memories of the kidnappings of 276 schoolgirls by jihadists in the northeastern town of Chibok in 2014.
The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings.
But there are concerns they are being infiltrated by armed Islamists.
The jihadists' decade-old conflict in the country's northeast has killed more than 30,000 people and spread into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
The UN refugee agency said Tuesday the violence in Nigeria's northwest had caused more than 7,000 to flee into neighbouring Niger this year.
Buhari said he was overjoyed that the schoolgirls had been freed without further incident.
"Being held in captivity is an agonizing experience not only for the victims, but also their families and all of us," he said in a statement.
He called on "the police and the military to go after these kidnappers and bring them to justice."
Kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country is a national problem.
At least $11 million was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and March 2020, according to SB Morgen, a Lagos-based geopolitical research consultancy.
Attack on aid agencies
Buhari was first elected president in 2015 on a platform to strengthen security, a vow that followed the Chibok kidnapping.
But jihadist attacks have continued unabated, and bandit raids in the northwest and centre have surged.
Overnight Monday, suspected members of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group, which split from Boko Haram in 2016, mounted an assault on the northern town of Dikwa.
"I am outraged to hear the premises of several aid agencies and a hospital were reportedly set ablaze or sustained damage," the UN's humanitarian coordinator, Edward Kallon, said.
"This violent attack will affect the support provided to nearly 100,000 people who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance and protection."