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More than 130 abducted schoolchildren in Nigeria are returning home after weeks in captivity

KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — More than 130 Nigerian schoolchildren rescued after more than two weeks in captivity arrived Monday in their home state in northwestern Nigeria ahead of their anticipated reunions with families, following the latest in a series of mass school abductions in the West African nation.

Six of the 137 students remain in hospital, and one staff member who was abducted along with the children died in captivity, military officials said.

The children were seized by motorcycle-riding gunmen at their school in the remote Kaduna state town of Kuriga on March 7, triggering a wide-ranging rescue operation. They were rescued Sunday by the military in a forest about 200 kilometers (more than 120 miles) to the north in neighboring Zamfara state, though authorities have provided no details of the rescue or said whether any suspected kidnappers were arrested.

The students, many of them below the age of 10, were brought Monday to the Kaduna State Government House with fresh haircuts and newly sewn clothes and footwear — their first change of clothing since their abduction.

Some of them had sore feet suggesting they might have trekked long distances in the forests where they were held hostage.

The six children still in hospital will be made available “as soon as the doctors have certified them fit enough,” Maj. Gen. Mayirenso Saraso, a military chief in Kaduna, said while handing them over to the government.

Information Minister Mohammed Idris told reporters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, that no ransom was paid for the children’s freedom and that their kidnappers “will be fished out by the security agencies and will never go unpunished.”

Arrests are rare in Nigeria’s kidnapping crisis as most victims are released only after ransom payments by their families or through deals that sometimes involve the release of their gang members. The Nigerian government, however, does not admit to such deals.

School authorities originally had told the state government that a total of 287 students were kidnapped during the attack. However, Kaduna Gov. Uba Sani said only 137 are confirmed to have been seized.

“We are here today happily and celebrating the safe return of our children. They will soon be with their family and their parents,” Gov. Sani said.

Their parents were not available to receive them and authorities did not allow the schoolchildren to speak to reporters. The Associated Press could not reach families in Kuriga town, which does not have cellphone service.

But one parent on Sunday spoke of their sleepless nights as they waited for the return of the children.

“We were traumatized throughout the absence of our children. Our children were away in the bush, with no food, and no good water,” said Jubril Kuriga, whose 9-year-old daughter was among the children kidnapped.

At least 1,400 students have been kidnapped from Nigerian schools since the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants in Borno state’s Chibok village shocked the world. In recent years, abductions have been concentrated in the country’s conflict-battered northwestern and central regions, where dozens of armed groups often target villagers and travelers for ransom.

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