KANO, NIGERIA: Boko Haram on Tuesday he said he was behind the kidnapping of hundreds of students in northwestern Nigeria, in what appears to be a major expansion of the jihadist group’s activities into new areas.
At least 333 students are still missing from last Friday’s attack on the boys-only Government Science Secondary School in Katsina state, hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the stronghold of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.
“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping of Katsina,” the leader of Boko Haram said in a voice message.
More than 100 gunmen on motorcycles stormed the rural school north of the city of Kankara, forcing the students to flee and hide in the surrounding bush.
Several boys managed to escape, but many were captured, divided into groups and taken away, residents told AFP.
#BringBackOurBoys has been trending on social media since the weekend in reference to a similar hashtag used after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in 2014 in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria.
The weekend attack was initially attributed to armed groups locally known as “bandits”, active in the unstable region where kidnappings for extortion purposes are common.
The army said it had located the “bandits” lair and that a military operation was underway.
The kidnappings took place in the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, who condemned the attack and ordered increased security in schools. In Katsina, all schools have been closed.
Tuesday’s claim of responsibility marks a major turning point in the advance of jihadist groups in northwestern Nigeria.
Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP), are leading an uprising in northeastern Nigeria and are believed to have only a minor presence in the Northwest.
But concerns have grown over jihadist incursions into the region, especially after fighters claiming to be in the Northwest posted a propaganda video swearing allegiance to Abubakar Shekau earlier this year.
Buhari has made fighting Boko Haram a priority of his administration, but the security situation in northern Nigeria has deteriorated since his 2015 elections.
Angry residents questioned the governor of Katsina state during a visit to the area on Saturday, while demonstrators 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 gunmen from the school,” the 18-year-old student told AFP over the weekend by phone.
“After they took us away we stopped inside the bus where they had the older students pick up a staff. We counted 520,” he said.
The hostages were divided into groups before Maale and four others escaped.
“One of the gunmen hit me repeatedly when I was unable to keep up with the rest of the group due to my poor health before letting me follow, giving me a chance to escape,” he said.
The Boko Haram uprising 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, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the region.
A regional military coalition was formed to fight the insurgents.