GUSAU (REUTERS) - Gunmen have freed all 279 girls kidnapped from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria, the governor of Zamfara state said on Tuesday (March 2), as one of the victims told Reuters how their abductors had beaten her and her schoolmates with their weapons.
According to earlier reports, 317 girls from the Government Girls Science Secondary (GGSS) School in the town of Jangebe were abducted by an armed gang at around 1am on Friday.
Zamfara state spokesman Sulaiman Tanau Anka told Reuters that some of the missing girls had run into the bush at the time of the assault, and the number of those kidnapped was 279. All had now been freed, Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle said.
Reuters journalists in Zamfara's state capital, Gusau, saw dozens of girls in Muslim veils sitting in a hall in a state government building. A few parents arrived later, and one father wept with joy after seeing his daughter.
Most of the girls appeared to be unharmed, but at least a dozen were sent to hospital for treatment. The girls were mostly barefoot, and several had injuries to their feet.
Farida Lawali, 15, told how she and the other girls had been taken to a forest, with the kidnappers carrying those unable to walk.
"They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns," she said, sitting in the government house building, covered in a light blue veil.
"They started hitting us with guns so that we could move,"she added. "While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time."
News of the girls' release brings "overwhelming joy", President Muhammadu Buhari said.
"I am pleased that their ordeal has come to a happy end without any incident."
One father, whose seven daughters were among those kidnapped and freed, said the incident would not deter him from schooling his children.
"It's a ploy to deny our girls ... from getting the Western education in which we are far behind," Mr Lawal Abdullahi told Reuters. "We should not succumb to blackmail. My advice to government is that they should take immediate precautions to stop further abductions."
On Monday, state officials said they were in talks with the kidnappers.
Schools have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom in northern Nigeria by armed criminal groups, in a trend started by the militant group Boko Haram, and later its offshoot Islamic State West Africa Province.
The government has repeatedly denied paying ransoms. But Mr Buhari on Friday urged state governments "to review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles, warning that the policy might boomerang disastrously".
The raid in Zamfara state was the second such kidnapping in little over a week in the northwest, a region increasingly targeted by criminal gangs. On Saturday, gunmen released 27 teenage boys who were kidnapped from their school on Feb 17 in the north-central state of Niger.
In 2014, Boko Haram abducted more than 270 schoolgirls from the northeastern town of Chibok, in Nigeria's most high profile school kidnapping. Around 100 of them remain missing.