The Nigerian army has rescued students and staff who were abducted by gunmen from a school in the country’s north earlier this month, the military said, days before the deadline for a ransom payment.

School officials and residents had said 287 students were taken on 7 March in the town of Kuriga, in the north-western state of Kaduna. A military spokesperson said 137 hostages – 76 female and 61 male – were rescued in the early hours of Sunday in the neighbouring state of Zamfara.

“In the early hours of 24 March 2024, the military, working with local authorities and government agencies across the country in a coordinated search and rescue operation, rescued the hostages,” Maj Gen Edward Buba said in a statement.

A security source said the students had been freed in a forest and were being escorted to Kaduna’s capital for medical tests before being reunited with their families.

The governor of Kaduna, Uba Sani, earlier put the number of people kidnapped at more than 200. Given the discrepancies in numbers reported, it was unclear whether any hostages remained in the kidnappers’ hands. Some Kuriga elders said Sani had told them all hostages had been freed.

Jibrin Aminu, a spokesperson for the Kuriga parents, said he would clarify numbers on Monday, when families had been given the chance to “take account of their kidnapped children”.

The rescue took place days before a deadline to pay a 1bn naira (£548,000) ransom for their release.

Abductions at Nigerian schools were first carried out by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which seized 276 students from a girls’ school in Chibok in north-eastern Borno State a decade ago. Some of the girls have never been released.

Since then, the tactic has been adopted by criminal gangs without ideological affiliation. Kidnappings by criminal gangs demanding ransoms have become an almost daily occurrence, especially in northern Nigeria, forcing families and communities to sell land, cattle and grain to secure the release of their loved ones.

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