Nigerian security forces have rescued nearly 200 kidnapping victims during raids on criminal gang camps in dense forests in the northwest of the country, police said.
Heavily armed gangs known locally as bandits have plagued northwestern and central Nigeria for years, raiding and looting villages and kidnapping for ransom, but violence has increased over the past year.
The rescued victims, 187 men, women and children, were released in Zamfara state, where they had been kidnapped in various bandit attacks, police said Thursday night.
Police released photos showing dozens of men, women and children sitting huddled on the ground after they were released on Thursday.
“Kidnapped victims who spent many weeks in captivity were unconditionally rescued after extensive search and rescue operations lasting hours,” Zamfara State Police spokesman Mohammed Shehu said in a statement.
The rescue was part of a larger week-long military operation in Zamfara and other northwestern states that included telecommunications blackouts to disrupt the bandits’ communications.
The army said last week that it had “neutralized” nearly 300 criminals during the operations. But the violence has not stopped.
On Tuesday, about 100 bandits on motorcycles besieged the village of Kuryan Madaro in Zamfara, killing 14 people and seizing money and mobile phones, residents said.
News of attacks in the northwest often comes slowly since authorities suspended telecommunications last month in Zamfara and parts of Katsina, Sokoto and Kaduna states.
Telecommunications service was restored in Zamfara’s capital, Gusau, last week.
The gangs, which maintain camps in the forests that stretch between those four states, have increasingly focused on schools where they kidnap students for ransom.
Hundreds of schoolchildren have been kidnapped in mass kidnappings since December. Most have been released or released after rescues, but dozens of people are still in detention.
Bandit violence is just one of the challenges facing Nigerian security forces, who are also fighting a 12-year-old jihadist insurgency in the northeast that has killed more than 40,000 people.