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Hundreds of schoolgirls who were kidnapped at an all-girls boarding school in northwest Nigeria last week have returned safely on Tuesday.  The incident is one of four attacks in three months, highlighting the nation’s mass kidnapping trend targeting schoolchildren in exchange for ransom.  

The students were abducted from the Government Girls Junior Secondary School (GGSS) in a rural town in Zamfara state on Friday, reports The Associated Press.  A resident nearby said that the gunmen attacked a military camp and checkpoint near the school to block soldiers from interfering with their plans.

Both Zimfara state police and the Nigerian military worked together to rescue the young girls from captivity successfully. It’s unclear if they paid a ransom in exchange for the girls’ freedom.

So far, all of the girls were calm and appeared unharmed when they arrived at the Zamfara state’s Government house conference room. 

Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle said 279 girls were returned safely despite an original claim of 317 kidnapped students when the government first reported the incident last week. The discrepancy has yet to be addressed by officials. 

One of the freed schoolgirls shared what happened during the abduction.

“We were sleeping at night when suddenly we started hearing gunshots,” she said to AP. “They were shooting endlessly. We got out of our beds and people said we should run, that they are thieves.”

“Everybody fled and there were just two of us left in the room,” she continued, describing how the bandits held guns to their heads. “I was really afraid of being shot.”

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari responded to the news of the safe return of the schoolgirls on Twitter:

“I join the affected families and the people of Zamfara State in welcoming and celebrating the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe,” Buhari tweeted. “This news bring overwhelming joy. I am pleased that their ordeal has come to a happy end without any incident.”

“We are working hard to bring an end to these grim and heartbreaking incidents of kidnapping. The Military and the Police will continue to go after kidnappers. They need the support of local communities in terms of human intelligence that can help nip criminal plans in the bud.”

Nigeria has battled several attacks and kidnappings targeting schools over the years. As recently as Saturday, 27 students, nine family members, and five staff members were released a week after their abduction from an all-boys boarding school in another rural area. In December, 344 students were also kidnapped and abducted by bandits. In both cases, Nigerian officials claimed they paid no ransom.

Officials have not specified the group responsible for the kidnappings, but they acknowledge that local armed bandits are responsible for the violent crimes, aiming to collect large ransoms.  The violent trend originally started with the jihadist group Boko Haram.

In April 2014, the terrorist group abducted 276 girls from their boarding school, resulting in over a dozen girls missing while the others either escaped or later rescued following negotiations. Schoolchildren are targeted because the group is against western education. 

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