GUSAU, Nigeria (Reuters) – Gunmen have freed all 279 girls kidnapped last week from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria, officials said on Tuesday, and victims told of how their abductors had beaten and threatened to shoot them during a forced march into captivity.
Dozens of girls in Muslim veils sat in a hall in a state government building before being taken for medical checks. A few parents arrived, and one father wept with joy after seeing his daughter.
Farida Lawali, 15, told how she and the other girls had been taken to a forest by the kidnappers.
“They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns,” she said, covered in a light blue veil. “They started hitting us with guns so that we could move,” she added. “While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.”
“They said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk,” another of the girls, Umma Abubakar, told Reuters, saying many had injuries that had made walking difficult.
Relief at their return was tempered by concern over the circumstances of their release. A series of similar school abductions in recent months has led many Nigerians to worry that regional authorities are making the situation worse by letting kidnappers go unpunished or paying them off.
Zailani Bappa, a media adviser to the state governor, denied that a ransom had been paid, but said the captors had been offered amnesty, as well as assistance to resettle at a site with newly built schools, a hospital and other facilities.
“The process means amnesty for those who repent and will be assisted to resettle. Hence, no monetary inducement or ransom was involved in the rescue. It was a willing surrender of the girls,” he said. “Those who surrender their arms will be assisted to start a new life. Since they are herders, they will be supported with a few cows each.”
President Muhammadu Buhari called for the captors to be brought to justice and said that if any ransoms were being paid, this would only make future attacks more likely.