KANO (NIGERIA): Gunmen raided a school in northwestern Nigeria overnight, abducting students, local authorities said Friday, raising fears that the country had been hit by another mass kidnapping.
The suspected armed bandits attacked the Government Girls Secondary School in Jangebe in Zamfara state, kidnapping an unknown number of students from dormitories.
In the initial aftermath, teachers said several hundred girls were unaccounted for.
"It is true, gunmen... kidnapped students," Sulaiman Tunau Anka, the state information commissioner, confirmed.
"They went to the school with vehicles. They forced some of the girls to trek."
The security forces are tracking the criminals, he added.
Heavily-armed criminal gangs known locally as "bandits" in northwest and central Nigeria have stepped up attacks in recent years, kidnapping for ransom, raping and pillaging.
Just last week, 42 people were taken by a gang from a boys school in nearby Niger state.
In December, more than 300 boys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, in President Muhammadu Buhari's home state of Katsina, while he was visiting the region.
The boys were later released but the incident triggered outrage and memories of the kidnappings of schoolgirls by jihadists in Dapchi and Chibok that shocked the world.
One teacher told AFP "more than 300 are unaccounted for" after Friday's attack, while another teacher had a higher estimate.
"Out of the 600 students in the school only around 50 have been accounted for. The rest have been abducted. It is possible some of them managed to escape, but we are not sure," the second teacher said.
A parent told AFP he had received a phone call about the incident.
"I'm on my way to Jangebe. I received a call that the school was invaded by bandits who took away schoolgirls. I have two daughters in the school," said Sadi Kawaye.
- Angered, horrified - "We are angered and saddened by yet another brutal attack on schoolchildren in Nigeria," UNICEF representative in Nigeria Peter Hawkins said in a statement.
"This is a gross violation of children's rights and a horrific experience for children to go through -- one which could have long-lasting effects on their mental health and well-being."
The UN agency called on those responsible to "release the girls immediately" and on the government "to ensure their safe release and the safety of all other schoolchildren in Nigeria."
The charity Save the Children said it was "horrified" about the news of the abductions.
"It is unacceptable that attacks on schools and students has become a recurring scenario in Northern Nigeria," said Mercy Gichuhi, Save the Children's Nigeria director.
"These attack... puts (the children) at risk of never returning to school, as they or their parents think it's too dangerous."
Amnesty International Nigeria said the abductions was "a serious violation of international humanitarian law."
"Nigerian authorities must take all measures to return them to safety, along with all children currently under the custody of armed groups," the rights group said on Twitter.
The federal government has not yet commented on the latest kidnappings.
Unrest in northwest Nigeria is just one security challenge facing Africa's most populous country, where militants are waging a jihadist insurgency in the northeast and ethnic tensions are simmering in some southern regions.
Along with central Nigeria, the region has increasingly become a hub for large criminal gangs who raid villages, killing and abducting residents after looting and torching homes.
Bandits operate out of camps in Rugu forest, which straddles Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger states.
Nigerian armed forces have deployed there but attacks and mass kidnappings persist.
The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings.
But there are concerns they are being infiltrated by jihadists who are fighting out a decade-old conflict that has killed more than 30,000 people and spread into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.