© Reuters. Protesters gather to urge authorities to rescue hundreds of kidnapped students in northwestern Katsina state
From Afolabi Sotunde
KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Dozens of students rescued from kidnappers in northwestern Nigeria returned home on Friday, many of them barefoot and with blankets.
TV pictures showed the boys in dusty clothes and light green uniforms, tired but otherwise good-looking, getting off buses in the city of Katsina and walking to a government building.
One of them told Channels TV, with dried mud stains on their faces, that the kidnappers had fed them bread and cassava.
"It was cold," he told the reporter. When asked how he felt when the bus arrived in Katsina, he said, "I was really happy" and smiled.
A week earlier, armed men on motorcycles raided the boys' boarding school in the nearby town of Kankara and marched hundreds of them into the vast Rugu forest. Authorities said security services rescued them Thursday, although it was not clear whether they were all recovered.
The kidnapping grabbed a country already outraged by widespread insecurity and was a reminder of the 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 school girls by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in the northeastern city of Chibok.
Six years later, only about half of the girls were found or freed. Others were married to fighters, while some are believed to be dead.
Hours before the boys' rescue was announced, a video was posted online allegedly showing the Boko Haram militants with some of the boys. Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage or who published it.
On Friday, the boys left the bus in a single row, flanked by soldiers and armed police. A group of their parents waited to be reunited with them in another part of town.
"I couldn't believe what I was hearing until neighbors came to tell me it was true," Hafsat Funtua, mother of 16-year-old Hamza Naziru, said earlier in a telephone interview.
Describing the moment she heard the news, she said she ran out of her house with joy "without knowing where to go" before returning home to pray.
Another parent, Husseini Ahmed, whose 14-year-old Mohammed Husseini was also among the abductees, said he was happy and relieved that he would soon be reunited with his son.
"We are happy and look forward to your return," he said.
Last week's mass kidnapping put the government under pressure to deal with militants in the north of the country.
It was particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, who is from Katsina and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been "technically defeated".
Boko Haram has turned prisoners into jihadist fighters in the past. If his claims are correct, his involvement in northwestern Nigeria marks a geographic expansion of his activities. But it could have bought the boys from local criminal gangs with which it has established ties.
Armed ransom robbery and kidnapping gangs, commonly referred to as "bandits", are launching attacks on communities in the northwest, making it difficult for locals in some states, such as gold, to farm, travel or develop mineral wealth.