Authorities in the northwestern Nigerian state of Zamfara are holding negotiations for the release of 317 schoolgirls kidnapped by criminal gangs last week, sources familiar with the talks said Monday.
Gunmen from cattle rustling and kidnapping-for-ransom gangs on Friday invaded the Government Girls Secondary School in remote Jangebe village, whisking the girls away from their hostel.
It is Nigeria’s third school attack in less than three months – a series that has revived traumatic memories of the “Chibok girls” kidnapped by jihadists nearly seven years ago.
Since the incident, government officials have been in talks with the kidnappers, known locally as bandits, over the girls’ release, two sources told AFP.
Both sources asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“Talks are ongoing with the bandits holding the girls and we hope to make a breakthrough soon,” said a government official privy to the negotiations.
“It is a delicate situation which requires patience and tact as it involves the lives of hundreds of girls.”
A second source said the location of the girls had been established but a military option was not on the cards, to avoid “putting the lives of the hostages in danger.”
Recently, some bandits renounced violence and accepted the state government’s amnesty offer in exchange for laying down their arms.
A source said “repentant bandits” were being contacted to reach out to their former comrades as part of efforts to free the students.
“The negotiations have gone far, with a few hurdles on the way, and once such hurdles are surmounted the girls will be released. That’s our ardent hope,” the source added.
On Sunday, a delegation from the Nigerian central government met with Zamfara state governor Bello Matawalle, giving an assurance from President Muhammadu Buhari that the girls would be reunited with their families.
Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika said all that mattered was the “safe return of these children” and there was no need for “blame games.”
Northwestern and central Nigeria have seen a surge in attacks by heavily armed criminal gangs raiding villages, killing and abducting residents after looting and torching homes.
On Saturday, 42 people – 27 schoolboys, three teachers and 12 family members abducted by gunmen in Kagara in central Niger state – were released after spending 10 days in captivity.