Nigerian security forces have rescued nearly 100 people, including babies, who were kidnapped and held by armed gangs in the country’s northwest Zamfara state. Nigerian police say their release Tuesday was unconditional and that no ransom was paid. While their freedom was welcomed, critics say authorities are not doing enough to improve security in the volatile region.
A total of 97 victims were rescued in two raids carried out by security forces on forest hideouts, where local criminal gangs or bandits held them captive.
Officials initially liberated 68 captives in the Shinkafi area and later rescued another 29 from a forest hideout elsewhere.
Police authorities said the abductees who were rescued include 19 infants between two and seven months old, and 16 other children. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and men were also rescued.
Zamfara state's police spokesperson, Shehu Mohammed, said many of the kidnap victims had been held for up to three months.
"On 3rd January 2022, police operatives received an intelligence report that some kidnap victims were being stranded in the bush. On receipt of that information, our police operatives in collaboration with the genuine repentant bandits and vigilante group swung into action," Mohammed said.
All the hostages were examined at the state hospital and later handed over to the state government in Gusau, the state capital. Mohamed said they are expected to be reunited with their families later Wednesday.
Nigerian police and the army have been cracking down on criminal gangs that attack communities and schools and take away captives, holding them for ransom.
Mohammed said a state-led police response on Tuesday evening stopped bandits from attacking another community, after a fierce exchange of gunfire.
But security expert Kabiru Adamu says such rescue operations are too expensive to maintain. He said "there's room for improvement but first of all, the operations are not sustainable. Nigeria is facing some very serious economic circumstances. These operations are very expensive so they're not likely to remain for too long. Previously such operations have been conducted but they'll stop them after a while."
Since last year, bandits have increasingly targeted schools, snatching 1,440 students nationwide and some teachers, according to the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.
In many cases, families had no choice but to pay ransom to recover their loved ones, despite pleas from the government not to pay.