About 333 students are still missing following the Friday attack on the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Katsina state, hundreds of miles from the Boko Haram’s stronghold in northeastern Nigeria.
“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” the leader of Boko Haram announced in a voice message.
Over 100 gunmen on motorbikes attacked the rural school north of Kankara town, forcing students to retreat and disappear into the surrounding bush.
Several boys were managed to escape, but a good number of them were captured, split into groups and driven away, locals told AFP.
#BringBackOurBoys has been trending on social media since the weekend about a similar hashtag used back in 2014 when Boko Haram abducted 276 girls in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria.
The attack was originally accused on armed organisations regionally known as “bandits”, who are engaged in the volatile area where kidnappings for ransom are common.
The army has stated it has discovered the hideout of the “bandits”, and that a military operation was under way.
The kidnappings happened in the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, who rebuked the crime and ordered security stepped up in schools. In Katsina region, all schools were shut down following the incident.
Tuesday’s claim of responsibility marks a major turning point in the advance of jihadist groups in northwest Nigeria. Boko Haram, and a splinter group, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), are conducting an insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria and are believed to have only a minor presence in the northwest.
But concerns have developed of jihadist invasions into the region, mainly after fighters alleging to be in the northwest published a propaganda video vowing allegiance to Abubakar Shekau earlier this year.
– ‘Hit me repeatedly’ –
President Buhari has given the fight against Boko Haram a major priority of his adminstration, but the safety condition in northern Nigeria has declined since his 2015 election.
Irate citizens heckled the Katsina state governor when he paid a visit to the region on Saturday, while protesters attended a government gathering led by Defence Minister Bashir Salihi-Magashi.
“There were a total of 520 of us that were taken by the gunmen from the school,” 18-year old student Osama Aminu Maale who escaped the abductors and returned to his parents told AFP by telephone.
“After they took us away we stopped inside the bus where they made the older students take a headcount. We counted 520,” he narrated.
The captives were divided into groups before Maale and 4 others escaped.
“One of the gunmen hit me repeatedly when I failed to keep up with the rest of the group due to my failing health before he let me trail behind, giving me the chance to escape,” he said.
The Boko Haram insurgency arose in 2009 in northeastern Nigeria before spreading to neighbours including Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Since then, over 36,000 people have been killed in Nigeria and 2 million forced to flee their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the region.