Families of more than 300 kidnapped Nigerian schoolboys worry they may be radicalised or held for years as security forces combed a vast forest for armed captors possibly from the jihadist Boko Haram movement.
According to an unverified audio clip, the group – whose name means “Western education is forbidden” – was responsible for last week’s raid on an all-boys school in Kankara in Katsina state.
Parents fear time may be running out: Boko Haram has a history of turning captives into jihadist fighters.
“They will radicalise our children if government does not act fast to help us rescue them,” said trader Shuaibu Kankara, speaking from home.
His 13-year-old son, Annas, was among those abducted from the Government Science School on Friday night.
Two other sons escapes, he added, when men on motorbikes with AK-47 assault rifles stormed the school and marched the boys into a forest.
Some experts feared the boys could be taken into Niger or split into groups to make finding them harder.
On Wednesday, Katsina state Governor Aminu Bello Masari told the BBC Hausa service the estimated 320 missing boys were in forests in neighbouring Zamfara state.
Earlier, an aide to Masari said soldiers and intelligence officers combed Rugu forest, which stretches across Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger states, in search of the boys.
Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, have waged a decade-long insurgency estimated to have displaced about two million people and killed more than 30 000. They want to create states based on their extreme interpretation of sharia law.
If Boko Haram carried out the kidnapping in an area where it had not previously claimed attacks, it would mark an alarming expansion beyond its north-eastern base, security experts say. But it may alternatively have purchased the boys from criminal gangs in the north-west with which it has been building ties.
Vincent Foucher, a security analyst at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said Boko Haram earlier this year released videos in which it said groups in north-west pledged allegiance to it.
CHIBOK GIRLS REMEMBERED
The abduction echoes Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in Chibok. The attack gave rise to a global #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
Six years on, about half the girls have been found or freed. Others were married off to fighters, while some are assumed dead.
“We pray it’s not going to be another situation of the Chibok girls’ abduction,” said Ahmed Bakori, a farmer whose 14-year-old son, Abubakar, was among those taken.
About two dozen parents came to the Government Science compound and prayed in the school mosque
Abubakar Lawal, who has two children among the captives, not believe Boko Haram’s claim and would wait with patience and prayers. “The government has to do diplomacy in a way to rescue these people.”
The attack is awkward for President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina and arrived on a private visit hours before the kidnapping. Buhari has repeatedly said Boko Haram was “technically defeated.”
A former military ruler, Buhari was elected in 2015 in large part due to his pledge to crush the insurgency. Under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, Boko Haram grew in strength and controlled territory around the size of Belgium.
Across the nation, anger and anxiety were building over the abductions, with #BringBackOurBoys trending on Twitter.
Military spokesman John Enenche said troops were determined to rescue the boys alive and had no evidence any were dead.
He gave new details of the school attack and subsequent firefight with guards. Soldiers arrived but could only shoot in the air as the assailants used the boys as shields.
Jacob Zenn, a Boko Haram expert at the US-based Jamestown Foundation think tank, said the longer the boys were with their captors, the likelier their indoctrination would be. He cited the example of some Chibok girls who chose to stay with Boko Haram.
“The longer this goes on, the more pressure will grow on government to negotiate and the more leverage militants will have over government,” he added.